The New World and the Old

The GIs-get-the-girls meme. France, summer 1944.

The young American was soon ready for the expedition, but De Catinat lingered until the last possible minute. When at last he was able to tear himself away, he adjusted his cravat, brushed his brilliant coat, and looked very critically over the sombre suit of his companion.

“Where got you those?” he asked.

“In New York, ere I left.”

“Hem! There is naught amiss with the cloth. The sombre colour is the mode, but the cut is strange.”

“I only know that I wish that I had my fringed hunting tunic and leggings on once more.”

“This hat, now. We do not wear our brims flat like that. See if I cannot mend it.” He took the beaver, and looping up one side of the brim, he fastened it with a golden brooch taken from his own shirt front. “There is a martial cock,” said he, laughing, “and would do credit to the King’s Own Musketeers. The black broad-cloth and silk hose will pass, but why have you not a sword at your side?”

“I carry a gun when I ride out.”

Mon Dieu, you will be laid by the heels as a bandit!”

“I have a knife, too.”

“Worse and worse! Well, we must dispense with the sword, and with the gun too, I pray! Let me re-tie your cravat. So! Now if you are in the mood for a ten-mile gallop, I am at your service.”

They were indeed a singular contrast as they walked their horses together through the narrow and crowded causeways of the Parisian streets. De Catinat, who was the older by five years, with his delicate small-featured face, his sharply trimmed moustache, his small but well-set and dainty figure, and his brilliant dress, looked the very type of the great nation to which he belonged.

His companion, however, large-limbed and strong, turning his bold and yet thoughtful face from side to side, and eagerly taking in all the strange, new life amidst which he found himself, was also a type, unfinished, it is true, but bidding fair to be the higher of the two. His close yellow hair, blue eyes, and heavy build showed that it was the blood of his father, rather than that of his mother, which ran in his veins; and even the sombre coat and swordless belt, if less pleasing to the eye, were true badges of a race which found its fiercest battles and its most glorious victories in bending nature to its will upon the seas and in the waste places of the earth.

“What is yonder great building?” he asked, as they emerged into a broader square.

“It is the Louvre, one of the palaces of the king.”

“And is he there?”

“Nay; he lives at Versailles.”

“What! Fancy that a man should have two such houses!”

“Two! He has many more—St. Germain, Marly, Fontainebleau, Clugny.”

“But to what end? A man can but live at one at a time.”

“Nay; he can now come or go as the fancy takes him.”

“It is a wondrous building. I have seen the Seminary of St. Sulpice at Montreal, and thought that it was the greatest of all houses, and yet what is it beside this?”

“You have been to Montreal, then? You remember the fort?”

“Yes, and the Hotel Dieu, and the wooden houses in a row, and eastward the great mill with the wall; but what do you know of Montreal?”

American artillery enter Paris. Place de la Concorde, August 1944.
American artillery enter Paris. Place de la Concorde, August 1944.

“I have soldiered there, and at Quebec, too. Why, my friend, you are not the only man of the woods in Paris, for I give you my word that I have worn the caribou moccasins, the leather jacket, and the fur cap with the eagle feather for six months at a stretch, and I care not how soon I do it again.”

Amos Green’s eyes shone with delight at finding that his companion and he had so much in common, and he plunged into a series of questions which lasted until they had crossed the river and reached the south-westerly gate of the city. By the moat and walls long lines of men were busy at their drill.

“Who are those, then?” he asked, gazing at them with curiosity.

“They are some of the king’s soldiers.”

“But why so many of them? Do they await some enemy?”

“Nay; we are at peace with all the world. Worse luck!”

“At peace. Why then all these men?”

“That they may be ready.”

The young man shook his head in bewilderment. “They might be as ready in their own homes surely. In our country every man has his musket in his chimney corner, and is ready enough, yet he does not waste his time when all is at peace.”

“Our king is very great, and he has many enemies.”

“And who made the enemies?”

“Why, the king, to be sure.”

“Then would it not be better to be without him?”

The guardsman shrugged his epaulettes in despair. “We shall both wind up in the Bastille or Vincennes at this rate,” said he. “You must know that it is in serving the country that he has made these enemies. It is but five years since he made a peace at Nimeguen, by which he tore away sixteen fortresses from the Spanish Lowlands. Then, also, he had laid his hands upon Strassburg and upon Luxembourg, and has chastised the Genoans, so that there are many who would fall upon him if they thought that he was weak.”

“And why has he done all this?”

“Because he is a great king, and for the glory of France.”

The stranger pondered over this answer for some time as they rode on between the high, thin poplars, which threw bars across the sunlit road.

“There was a great man in Schenectady once,” said he at last. “They are simple folk up yonder, and they all had great trust in each other. But after this man came among them they began to miss—one a beaver-skin and one a bag of ginseng, and one a belt of wampum, until at last old Pete Hendricks lost his chestnut three-year-old. Then there was a search and a fuss until they found all that had been lost in the stable of the new-comer, so we took him, I and some others, and we hung him up on a tree, without ever thinking what a great man he had been.”

Victory lap through the Champs Elysee. Paris, August 1944.
Victory lap through the Champs Elysee. Paris, August 1944.

De Catinat shot an angry glance at his companion. “Your parable, my friend, is scarce polite,” said he. “If you and I are to travel in peace you must keep a closer guard upon your tongue.”

“I would not give you offence, and it may be that I am wrong,” answered the American, “but I speak as the matter seems to me, and it is the right of a free man to do that.”

De Catinat’s frown relaxed as the other turned his earnest blue eyes upon him. “By my soul, where would the court be if every man did that?” said he. “But what in the name of heaven is amiss now?”

His companion had hurled himself off his horse, and was stooping low over the ground, with his eyes bent upon the dust. Then, with quick, noiseless steps, he zigzagged along the road, ran swiftly across a grassy bank, and stood peering at the gap of a fence, with his nostrils dilated, his eyes shining, and his whole face aglow with eagerness.

“The fellow’s brain is gone,” muttered De Catinat, as he caught at the bridle of the riderless horse. “The sight of Paris has shaken his wits. What in the name of the devil ails you, that you should stand glaring there?”

“A deer has passed,” whispered the other, pointing down at the grass. “Its trail lies along there and into the wood. It could not have been long ago, and there is no slur to the track, so that it was not going fast. Had we but fetched my gun, we might have followed it, and brought the old man back a side of venison.”

“For God’s sake get on your horse again!” cried De Catinat distractedly.

“I fear that some evil will come upon you ere I get you safe to the Rue
St. Martin again!”

“And what is wrong now?” asked Amos Green, swinging himself into the saddle.

“Why, man, these woods are the king’s preserves and you speak as coolly of slaying his deer as though you were on the shores of Michigan!”

“Preserves! They are tame deer!” An expression of deep disgust passed over his face, and spurring his horse, he galloped onwards at such a pace that De Catinat, after vainly endeavouring to keep up, had to shriek to him to stop.

“It is not usual in this country to ride so madly along the roads,” he panted.

In front of the Grand Palais. Paris, August 1944.
In front of the Grand Palais. Paris, August 1944.

“It is a very strange country,” cried the stranger, in perplexity. “Maybe it would be easier for me to remember what is allowed. It was but this morning that I took my gun to shoot a pigeon that was flying over the roofs in yonder street, and old Pierre caught my arm with a face as though it were the minister that I was aiming at. And then there is that old man—why, they will not even let him say his prayers.”

De Catinat laughed. “You will come to know our ways soon,” said he. “This is a crowded land, and if all men rode and shot as they listed, much harm would come from it. But let us talk rather of your own country. You have lived much in the woods from what you tell me.”

“I was but ten when first I journeyed with my uncle to Sault la Marie, where the three great lakes meet, to trade with the Chippewas and the tribes of the west.”

“I know not what La Salle or De Frontenac would have said to that. The trade in those parts belongs to France.”

“We were taken prisoners, and so it was that I came to see Montreal and afterwards Quebec. In the end we were sent back because they did not know what they could do with us.”

“It was a good journey for a first.”

“And ever since I have been trading—first, on the Kennebec with the Abenaquis, in the great forests of Maine, and with the Micmac fish-eaters over the Penobscot. Then later with the Iroquois, as far west as the country of the Senecas. At Albany and Schenectady we stored our pelts, and so on to New York, where my father shipped them over the sea.”

“But he could ill spare you surely?”

“Very ill. But as he was rich, he thought it best that I should learn some things that are not to be found in the woods. And so he sent me in the Golden Rod, under the care of Ephraim Savage.”

“Who is also of New York?”

“Nay; he is the first man that ever was born at Boston.”

“I cannot remember the names of all these villages.”

“And yet there may come a day when their names shall be as well known as that of Paris.”

De Catinat laughed heartily. “The woods may have given you much, but not the gift of prophecy, my friend. Well, my heart is often over the water even as yours is, and I would ask nothing better than to see the palisades of Point Levi again, even if all the Five Nations were raving upon the other side of them. But now, if you will look there in the gap of the trees, you will see the king’s new palace.”

The two young men pulled up their horses, and looked down at the wide-spreading building in all the beauty of its dazzling whiteness, and at the lovely grounds, dotted with fountain and with statue, and barred with hedge and with walk, stretching away to the dense woods which clustered round them. It amused De Catinat to watch the swift play of wonder and admiration which flashed over his companion’s features.

“Well, what do you think of it?” he asked at last.

“I think that God’s best work is in America, and man’s in Europe.”

Adapted from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Refugees: A Tale of Two Continents (1893). Photographs courtesy of Antoine Vasse Nicolas.

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