Recollections of My Youth/Good Master Systeme/Part I

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Good Master Systeme/Part I[edit]

I was related on my maternal grandmother's side to a much more prim class of people. My grandmother was a very good specimen of the middle-classes of former days. She had been excessively pretty. I can remember her towards the close of her life, and she was always dressed in the fashion which prevailed at the time of her being left a widow. She was very particular about her class, never altered her head-dress, and would not allow herself to be addressed except as "Mademoiselle." The ladies of noble birth had a great respect for her. When they met my sister Henrietta they used to kiss her and say, "My dear, your grandmother was a very respectable person, we were very fond of her. Try to be like her." And as it happened my sister did like her very much and took her as a pattern, but my mother, always laughing and full of wit, differed from her very much. Mother and daughter were in all respects a marked contrast.

The worthy burghers of Lannion and their families were models of simplicity, honour, and respectability. Several of my aunts never married, but they were very light-spirited and cheerful, thanks to the innocence of their hearts. Families dwelt together in unity, animated by the same simple faith. My aunts' sole amusement on Sundays after mass was to send a feather up into the air, each blowing at it in turn to prevent it from falling to the ground. This afforded them amusement enough to last until the following Sunday. The piety of my grandmother, her urbanity, her regard for the established order of things are graven in my heart as the best pictures of that old-fashioned society based upon God and the king--two props for which it may not be easy to find substitutes.

When the Revolution broke out my grandmother was horror-struck, and she took the lead with so many other pious persons in hiding the priests who had refused to take the oath of fidelity to the Constitution. Mass was celebrated in her drawing-room, and as the ladies of the nobility had emigrated she thought it her duty to take their place. Most of my uncles, on the other hand were ardent patriots. When any public misfortune occurred, such, for instance, as the treason of Dumouriez, my uncles allowed their beards to grow and went about with long faces, flowing cravats, and untidy garments. My grandmother would at these times indulge in delicate but rather risky satire. "My dear Tanneguy, what is the matter with you? Has any trouble befallen us? Has anything happened to Cousin Amelie? Is my Aunt Augustine's asthma worse?"--"No, cousin, the Republic is in danger."--"Oh, is that all, my dear Tanneguy? I am so glad to hear you say so. You quite relieve me." Thus she sported for two years with the guillotine, and it is a wonder that she escaped it. A lady named Taupin, pious like herself, was associated with her in these good works. The priests were sheltered by turns in her house and in that of Madame Taupin. My uncle Y----, a very sturdy Revolutionist, but a good-hearted man at bottom, often said to her: "My cousin, if it came to my knowledge that there were priests or aristocrats concealed in your house, I should be obliged to denounce you." She always used to reply that her only acquaintances were true friends of the Republic and no mistake about it.

So it was that Madame Taupin was the one to be guillotined. My mother never related this incident to me without being very deeply moved. She showed me when I was a child the spot where the tragedy was enacted. Upon the day of the execution, my grandmother went, with all her family, out of Lannion, so as not to participate in the crime which was about to be committed. She went before daybreak to a chapel, situated rather more than a mile from the town in a retired spot and dedicated to St. Roch. Several pious persons had arranged to meet there, and a signal was to let them know just when the knife was about to drop so that they might all be in prayer when the soul of the martyr was, brought by the angels before the throne of the Most High.

All this bound people together more closely than we can form any idea of. My grandmother loved the priests and believed in their courage and devotion to duty. She was destined to meet with a very cool reception from one of them. When during the Consulate religious worship was re-established, the priest whom she had sheltered at the risk of her life was appointed incumbent of a parish near Lannion. She took my mother, then quite a child, with her, and they walked the five miles under a scorching sun. The thought of meeting again one whom she had seen keeping the night watch at her house under such tragical circumstances made her heart beat fast. The priest, whether from sacerdotal pride or from a feeling of duty, behaved in a very strange manner. He scarcely seemed to recognise her, never asked her to be seated, and dismissed her with a few short remarks. Not a word of thanks or an allusion to the past. He did not even offer her a glass of water. My grandmother could scarcely keep from fainting; and she returned to Lannion in tears, whether because she reproached herself for some feminine error of the heart or because she was hurt by so much pride. My mother never knew whether in after years she looked back to this incident with the more of injured pride or of admiration. Perhaps, she came at last to recognise the infinite wisdom of the priest, who seemed to say to her, "Woman, what have I to do with thee?" and who would not admit that he had any reason to be grateful to her. It is difficult for women to comprehend this abstract feeling. Their work, whatever it may be, has always a personal object in view, and it would be hard to make them believe it natural that people should fight shoulder to shoulder without knowing and liking one another.

My mother, with her frank, cheerful, and inquisitive ways, was rather partial to the Revolution than the reverse. Unknown to my grandmother she used to go and hear the patriotic songs. The Chant du Depart made a great impression upon her, and when she repeated the stirring line put in the mouth of the mothers,

"De nos yeux maternels ne craignez point de larmes,"

her voice was always broken. These stirring and terrible scenes had imprinted themselves for ever upon her mind. When she began to go back over these recollections, indissolubly bound up with the days of her girlhood, when she remembered how enthusiasm and wild delight alternated with scenes of terror, her whole life seemed to rise up before her I learnt from her to be so proud of the Revolution that I have liked it since, in spite of my reason and of all that I have said against it. I do not withdraw anything that I have already said; but when I see the inveterate persistency of foreign writers to try and prove that the French Revolution was one long story of folly and shame, and that it is but an unimportant factor in the world's history, I begin to think that it is perhaps the greatest of all our achievements, inasmuch as other people are so jealous of it.