Of a former visit to Versailles we had retained little more than the usual tourist’s recollection of a hurried run through a palace of fatiguing magnificence, a confusing peep at the Trianons, a glance around the gorgeous state equipages, an unsatisfactory meal at one of the open-air cafes, and a scamper back to Paris. But our winter residence in the quaint old town revealed to us the existence of a life that is all its own—a life widely variant, in its calm repose, from the bustle and gaiety of the capital, but one that is replete with charm, and abounding in picturesque-interest.
[Illustration: Automoblesse Oblige]
Versailles is not ancient; it is old, completely old. Since the fall of the Second Empire it has stood still. Most of the clocks have run down, as though they realised the futility of trying to keep pace with the rest of the world. The future merges into the present, the present fades into the past, and still the clocks of Versailles point to the same long eventide.
[Illustration: Sable Garb]
The proximity of Paris is evinced only by the vividly tinted automobiles that make Versailles their goal. Even they rarely tarry in the old town, but, turning at the Chateau gates, lose no time in retracing their impetuous flight towards a city whose usages accord better with their creed of feverish hurry-scurry than do the conventions of reposeful Versailles. And these fiery chariots of modernity, with their ghoulish, fur-garbed, and hideously spectacled occupants, once their raucous, cigale-like birr-r-r has died away in the distance, leave infinitely less impression on the placid life of Versailles than do their wheels on the roads they traverse. Under the grand trees of the wide avenues the townsfolk move quietly about, busying themselves with their own affairs and practising their little economies as they have been doing any time during the last century.
Perhaps it was the emphatic and demonstrative nature of the mourning worn that gave us the idea that the better-class female population of Versailles consisted chiefly of widows. When walking abroad we seemed incessantly to encounter widows: widows young and old, from the aged to the absurdly immature. It was only after a period of bewilderment that it dawned upon us that the sepulchral garb and heavy crape veils reaching from head to heel were not necessarily the emblems of widowhood, but might signify some state of minor bereavement. In Britain a display of black such as is an everyday sight at Versailles is undreamt of, and one saw more crape veils in a day in Versailles than in London in a week. Little girls, though their legs might be uncovered, had their chubby features shrouded in disfiguring gauze and to our unaccustomed foreign eyes a genuine widow represented nothing more shapely than a more or less stubby pillar festooned with crape.
But for an inborn conviction that a frugal race like the French would not invest in a plethora of mourning garb only to cast it aside after a few months’ wear, and that therefore the period of wearing the willow must be greatly protracted, we would have been haunted by the idea that the adult male mortality of Versailles was enormous.