The conversation opened with details of the day's shooting. When all the sportsmen of a village shoot over the village territory pro indiviso, it is plain that many questions of etiquette and priority must arise.
'Here now,' cried the landlord, brandishing a plate, 'here is a field of beet-root. Well. Here am I then. I advance, do I not? Eh bien! sacristi,' and the statement, waxing louder, rolls off into a reverberation of oaths, the speaker glaring about for sympathy, and everybody nodding his head to him in the name of peace.
The ruddy Northman told some tales of his own prowess in keeping order: notably one of a Marquis.
'Marquis,' I said, 'if you take another step I fire upon you. You have committed a dirtiness, Marquis.'
Whereupon, it appeared, the Marquis touched his cap and withdrew.
The landlord applauded noisily. 'It was well done,' he said. 'He did all that he could. He admitted he was wrong.' And then oath upon oath. He was no marquis-lover either, but he had a sense of justice in him, this proletarian host of ours.
From the matter of hunting, the talk veered into a general comparison of Paris and the country. The proletarian beat the table like a drum in praise of Paris. 'What is Paris? Paris is the cream of France. There are no Parisians: it is you and I and everybody who are Parisians. A man has eighty chances per cent. to get on in the world in Paris.' And he drew a vivid sketch of the workman in a den no bigger than a dog-hutch, making articles that were to go all over the world. 'Eh bien, quoi, c'est magnifique, ca!' cried he.
The sad Northman interfered in praise of a peasant's life; he thought Paris bad for men and women; 'centralisation,' said he -
But the landlord was at his throat in a moment. It was all logical, he showed him; and all magnificent. 'What a spectacle! What a glance for an eye!' And the dishes reeled upon the table under a cannonade of blows.
Seeking to make peace, I threw in a word in praise of the liberty of opinion in France. I could hardly have shot more amiss. There was an instant silence, and a great wagging of significant heads. They did not fancy the subject, it was plain; but they gave me to understand that the sad Northman was a martyr on account of his views. 'Ask him a bit,' said they. 'Just ask him.'
'Yes, sir,' said he in his quiet way, answering me, although I had not spoken, 'I am afraid there is less liberty of opinion in France than you may imagine.' And with that he dropped his eyes, and seemed to consider the subject at an end.
Our curiosity was mightily excited at this. How, or why, or when, was this lymphatic bagman martyred? We concluded at once it was on some religious question, and brushed up our memories of the Inquisition, which were principally drawn from Poe's horrid story, and the sermon in Tristram Shandy, I believe.
On the morrow we had an opportunity of going further into the question; for when we rose very early to avoid a sympathising deputation at our departure, we found the hero up before us. He was breaking his fast on white wine and raw onions, in order to keep up the character of martyr, I conclude. We had a long conversation, and made out what we wanted in spite of his reserve. But here was a truly curious circumstance. It seems possible for two Scotsmen and a Frenchman to discuss during a long half-hour, and each nationality have a different idea in view throughout. It was not till the very end that we discovered his heresy had been political, or that he suspected our mistake. The terms and spirit in which he spoke of his political beliefs were, in our eyes, suited to religious beliefs. And vice versa.
Nothing could be more characteristic of the two countries. Politics are the religion of France; as Nanty Ewart would have said, 'A d-d bad religion'; while we, at home, keep most of our bitterness for little differences about a hymn-book, or a Hebrew word which perhaps neither of the parties can translate. And perhaps the misconception is typical of many others that may never be cleared up: not only between people of different race, but between those of different sex.