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- Europe Revised - 10/47 -
They were still congratulating him when we pulled out and went tearing along on our way to Paris, scooting through quaint, stone-walled cities, each one dominated by its crumbly old cathedral; sliding through open country where the fields were all diked and ditched with small canals and bordered with poplars trimmed so that each tree looked like a set of undertaker's whiskers pointing the wrong way.
And in these fields were peasants in sabots at work, looking as though they had just stepped out of one of Millet's pictures. Even the haystacks and the scarecrows were different. In England the haystacks had been geometrically correct in their dimensions --so square and firm and exact that sections might be sliced off them like cheese, and doors and windows might be carved in them; but these French haystacks were devil-may-care haystacks wearing tufts on their polls like headdresses. The windmills had a rakish air; and the scarecrows in the truck gardens were debonair and cocky, tilting themselves back on their pins the better to enjoy the view and fluttering their ragged vestments in a most jaunty fashion. The land though looked poor--it had a driven, overworked look to it.
Presently, above the clacking voice of our train, we heard a whining roar without; and peering forth we beheld almost over our heads a big monoplane racing with us. It seemed a mighty, winged Thunder Lizard that had come back to link the Age of Stone with the Age of Air. On second thought I am inclined to believe the Thunder Lizard did not flourish in the Stone Age; but if you like the simile as much as I like it we will just let it stand.
Three times on that trip we saw from the windows of our train aviators out enjoying the cool of the evening in their airships; and each time the natives among the passengers jammed into the passageway that flanked the compartments and speculated regarding the identity of the aviators and the make of their machines, and argued and shrugged their shoulders and quarreled and gesticulated. The whole thing was as Frenchy as tripe in a casserole.
I was wrong, though, a minute ago when I said there remained nothing to remind us of the right little, tight little island we had just quit; for we had two Englishmen in our compartment--fit and proper representatives of a certain breed of Englishman. They were tall and lean, and had the languid eyes and the long, weary faces and the yellow buck teeth of weary cart-horses, and they each wore a fixed expression of intense gloom. You felt sure it was a fixed expression because any person with such an expression would change it if he could do so by anything short of a surgical operation. And it was quite evident they had come mentally prepared to disapprove of all things and all people in a foreign clime.
Silently, but none the less forcibly, they resented the circumstance that others should be sharing the same compartment with them--or sharing the same train, either, for that matter. The compartment was full, too, which made the situation all the more intolerable: an elderly English lady with a placid face under a mid-Victorian bonnet; a young, pretty woman who was either English or American; the two members of my party, and these two Englishmen.
And when, just as the train was drawing out of Calais, they discovered that the best two seats, which they had promptly preempted, belonged to others, and that the seats for which they held reservations faced rearward, so that they must ride with their backs to the locomotive--why, that irked them sore and more. I imagine they wrote a letter to the London Times about it afterward.
As is the pleasing habit of traveling Englishmen, they had brought with them everything portable they owned. Each one had four or five large handbags, and a carryall, and a hat box, and his tea-caddy, and his plaid blanket done up in a shawlstrap, and his framed picture of the Death of Nelson--and all the rest of it; and they piled those things in the luggage racks until both the racks were chock-full; so the rest of us had to hold our baggage in our laps or sit on it. One of them was facing me not more than five or six feet distant. He never saw me though. He just gazed steadily through me, studying the pattern of the upholstery on the seat behind me; and I could tell by his look that he did not care for the upholstering--as very naturally he would not, it being French.
We had traveled together thus for some hours when one of them began to cloud up for a sneeze. He tried to sidetrack it, but it would not be sidetracked. The rest of us, looking on, seemed to hear that sneeze coming from a long way off. It reminded me of a musical-sketch team giving an imitation of a brass band marching down Main Street playing the Turkish Patrol--dim and faint at first, you know, and then growing louder and stronger, and gathering volume until it bursts right in your face.
Fascinated, we watched his struggles. Would he master it or would it master him? But he lost, and it was probably a good thing he did. If he had swallowed that sneeze it would have drowned him. His nose jibed and went about; his head tilted back farther and farther; his countenance expressed deep agony, and then the log jam at the bend in his nose went out with a roar and he let loose the moistest, loudest kerswoosh! that ever was, I reckon.
He sneezed eight times. The first sneeze unbuttoned his waistcoat, the second unparted his hair, and the third one almost pulled his shoes off; and after that they grew really violent, until the last sneeze shifted his cargo and left him with a list to port and his lee scuppers awash. It made a ruin of him--the Prophet Isaiah could not have remained dignified wrestling with a sneezing bee of those dimensions--but oh, how it did gladden the rest of us to behold him at the mercy of the elements and to note what a sodden, waterlogged wreck they made of him!
It was not long after that before we had another streak of luck. The train jolted over something and a hat fell down from the topmost pinnacle of the mountain of luggage above and hit his friend on the nose. We should have felt better satisfied if it had been a coal scuttle; but it was a reasonably hard and heavy hat and it hit him brim first on the tenderest part of his nose and made his eyes water, and we were grateful enough for small blessings. One should not expect too much of an already overworked Providence.
The rest of us were still warm and happy in our souls when, without any whistle-tooting or bell-clanging or station-calling, we slid silently, almost surreptitiously, into the Gare du Nord, at Paris. Neither in England nor on the mainland does anyone feel called on to notify you that you have reached your destination.
It is like the old formula for determining the sex of a pigeon--you give the suspected bird some corn, and if he eats it he is a he; but if she eats it she is a she. In Europe if it is your destination you get off, and if it is not your destination you stay on. On this occasion we stayed on, feeling rather forlorn and helpless, until we saw that everyone else had piled off. We gathered up our belongings and piled off too.
By that time all the available porters had been engaged; so we took up our luggage and walked. We walked the length of the trainshed--and then we stepped right into the recreation hall of the State Hospital for the Criminal Insane, at Matteawan, New York. I knew the place instantly, though the decorations had been changed since I was there last. It was a joy to come on a home institution so far from home--joysome, but a trifle disconcerting too, because all the keepers had died or gone on strike or something; and the lunatics, some of them being in uniform and some in civilian dress, were leaping from crag to crag, uttering maniacal shrieks.
Divers lunatics, who had been away and were just getting back, and sundry lunatics who were fixing to go away and apparently did not expect ever to get back, were dashing headlong into the arms of still other lunatics, kissing and hugging them, and exchanging farewells and sacre-bleuing with them in the maddest fashion imaginable. From time to time I laid violent hands on a flying, flitting maniac and detained him against his will, and asked him for some directions; but the persons to whom I spoke could not understand me, and when they answered I could not understand them; so we did not make much headway by that. I could not get out of that asylum until I had surrendered the covers of our ticket books and claimed our baggage and put it through the customs office. I knew that; the trouble was I could not find the place for attending to these details. On a chance I tried a door, but it was distinctly the wrong place; and an elderly female on duty there got me out by employing the universal language known of all peoples. She shook her skirts at me and said Shoo! So I got out, still toting five or six bags and bundles of assorted sizes and shapes, and tried all the other doors in sight.
Finally, by a process of elimination and deduction, I arrived at the right one. To make it harder for me they had put it around a corner in an elbow-shaped wing of the building and had taken the sign off the door. This place was full of porters and loud cries. To be on the safe side I tendered retaining fees to three of the porters; and thus by the time I had satisfied the customs officials that I had no imported spirits or playing cards or tobacco or soap, or other contraband goods, and had cleared our baggage and started for the cabstand, we amounted to quite a stately procession and attracted no little attention as we passed along. But the tips I had to hand out before the taxi started would stagger the human imagination if I told you the sum total.
There are few finer things than to go into Paris for the first time on a warm, bright Saturday night. At this moment I can think of but one finer thing--and that is when, wearied of being short-changed and bilked and double-charged, and held up for tips or tribute at every step, you are leaving Paris on a Saturday night--or, in fact, any night.
Those first impressions of the life on the boulevards are going to stay in my memory a long, long time--the people, paired off at the tables of the sidewalk cafes, drinking drinks of all colors; a little shopgirl wearing her new, cheap, fetching hat in such a way as to center public attention on her head and divert it from her feet, which were shabby; two small errand boys in white aprons, standing right in the middle of the whirling, swirling traffic, in imminent peril of their lives, while one lighted his cigarette butt from the cigarette butt of his friend; a handful of roistering soldiers, singing as they swept six abreast along the wide, rutty sidewalk; the kiosks for advertising, all thickly plastered over with posters, half of which should have been in an art gallery and the other half in a garbage barrel; a well-dressed pair, kissing in the full glare of a street light; an imitation art student, got up to look like an Apache, and--no doubt--plenty of real Apaches got up to look like human beings; a silk-hatted gentleman, stopping with perfect courtesy to help a bloused workman lift a baby-laden baby carriage over an awkward spot in the curbing, and the workingman returning thanks with the same perfect courtesy; our own driver, careening along in a manner suggestive of what certain East Side
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