At first sight there was no sign of decay about the long-deserted hamlet. The windows were closed, but had it been early morning, one could easily have imagined that the pseudo villagers were asleep behind the shuttered casements, and that soon the Queen, in some charming deshabille, would come out to breathe the sweet morning air and to inhale the perfume of the climbing roses on the balcony overlooking the lake, wherein gold-fish darted to and fro among the water-lilies; or expect to see the King, from the steps of the little mill where he lodged, exchange blithe greetings with the maids of honour as they tripped gaily to the laiterie to play at butter-making, or sauntered across the rustic bridge on their way to gather new-laid eggs at the farm.
The sunset glamour had faded and the premature dusk of mid-winter was falling as, approaching nearer, we saw where the roof-thatch had decayed, where the insidious finger of Time had crumbled the stone walls. A chilly wind arising, moaned through the naked trees. The shadow of the guillotine seemed to brood oppressively over the scene, and, shuddering, we hastened away.
[Illustration: To the Place of Rest]
Even in the last days of December rosebuds had been trying to open on the standard bushes in the sheltered rose-garden of the Palace. But with the early nights of January a sudden frost seized the town in its icy grip, and, almost before we had time to realise the change of weather, pipes were frozen and hot-water bottles of strange design made their appearance in the upper corridors of the hotel. The naked cherubs in the park basins stood knee-deep in ice, skaters skimmed the smooth surface of the canal beyond the tapis vert, and in a twinkling Versailles became a town peopled by gnomes and brownies whose faces peeped quaintly from within conical hoods.
Soldiers drew their cloak-hoods over their uniform caps. Postmen went their rounds thus snugly protected from the weather. The doddering old scavengers, plying their brooms among the great trees of the avenues, bore so strong a resemblance to the pixies who lurk in caves and woods, that we almost expected to see them vanish into some crevice in the gnarled roots of the trunks. Even the tiny acolytes trotting gravely in the funeral processions had their heads and shoulders shrouded in the prevailing hooded capes.
[Illustration: While the Frost Holds]
To us, accustomed though we were to an inclement winter climate, the chill seemed intense. So frigid was the atmosphere that the first step taken from the heated hotel hall into the outer air felt like putting one’s face against an iceberg. All wraps of ordinary thickness appeared incapable of excluding the cold, and I sincerely envied the countless wearers of the dominant Capuchin cloaks.
[Illustration: The Postman’s Wrap]