For whom the bell tolls–a memoir piece

Another of my memoir pieces that I’m republishing: this one’s about the house and the village in south-west France where we lived through parts of my childhood.

Back then: La Nouvelle Terrebonne from the back, with the castle and church seen in background

For whom the bell tolls

My childhood and adolescence were spent bouncing between Australia and France as my expatriate French parents never emigrated formally to Australia. My father worked for a big French building firm in Australia, after having worked previously in Indonesia and Africa, and a part of his contract entitlements was a regular paid trip back to France for the whole family. So every two or three years, we’d up Sydney sticks to spend two or three months in our French home, in the tiny village of Empeaux, in the Haute-Garonne departement of south-west France, thirty-five kilometres from Toulouse.

My parents had bought our beautiful eighteenth-century house in Empeaux, La Nouvelle Terrebonne, as a dilapidated shell in 1959 and proceeded to restore it to its former glory as the second finest house in the village(after the castle)through many years of huge builder’s bills.

The village was dominated by the castle, the church and, surprising in such a bucolic setting, the factory. Empeaux had been declining for many years when the new owner of the castle decided to open a ceramics factory. It was built at the far end of the village, right away from its main street, which was lined with thin, tall stone houses on one side, and on the other, our own large house, flanked by two much less imposing houses. Further down was the church with its pleasant, most unghostly little graveyard. Up on the hill at one end of the street, surrounded by a high fence and the barking of what we assumed were ferocious guard dogs, was the castle—not an ancient medieval fortress but a beautiful seventeenth-century building done up in the nineteenth century, all silvery-topped turrets and narrow windows.

The people who lived in the village’s main streets were old-time residents; the new ones who poured into the area, after the ceramics factory work, lived down the hill, away from the centre–Portuguese and North Africans, and young people from other villages.

On one side of our house lived the Vaccaronnes, peasant farmers; on the other, Remi Peres and his dog. Monsieur Vaccaronne had emigrated from Italy many, many years ago, so long ago that he often forgot he ever had. In fact, he was the epitome of the French peasant–canny, suspicious, pale blue eyes full of calculating hospitality, beret jammed tightly on his balding head. He and his wife had two grown up daughters who married quite late, and a great love of the variety singers in spangled suits who proliferated on French television screens. He would ask us into his kitchen, and, proferring a tiny finger of gnole, the fiery bootleg liquor that everyone made in defiance of the authorities, would point proudly at the television, where Claude Francois or Johnny Hallyday crooned or yelled. “Isn’t that beautiful?” he would say to my father.

Papa hated TV. We knew that. We didn’t have one at home, either in France or Australia. But he contented himself with an ambivalent  murmur, while old Monsieur Vaccarone hummed along with the singer on television. Then he turned to us with a wicked smile. “I want to show you something. Come and see!”

In the clean whitewashed wall of his kitchen there was a door, set well into the wall. He opened it. We knew what was beyond it, we’d been there before. But still, each time was a shock, like a passing from one time into another. Here the walls had been left plain, the smells were not of daube or saucisse de Toulouse, as in the kitchen, but a rich full, deep smell, both repellent and warm, the smell of familiar animals.

In one corner were the stalls for the Vaccarones’ two cows, which were driven off to pasture every day by Rose Vaccarone, calling out shrilly to her dog, “Euh! Mizette! Euh! Euh!” We’d walked to the pasture once or twice, and found Rose sitting there with her cows, her feet snuggled into the warm flowery grass.

But the cows weren’t there, this time, and the hens were out, scratching in the main street near the pump, squawking indignantly at birds landing near them. But the pig was there, an enormous, huge, nightmarish sow with evil eyes and an obscenely displayed belly, as several tiny shapes bustled and squealed at her teats.

“Beautiful,” said Monsieur Vaccarone, in the same admiring tone that he’d used for the singers. “She’s a wonder, that one. Always has so many piglets!” He looked at them in silence for a while, while I wrinkled my nose, thinking that it smelt of bacon and sausages in here, a thought that made me feel horrid. There was something disgusting about smelling the food on the living animal.

Monsieur Vaccaronne cackled, unexpectedly. “She’s a bit of a witch, though. I have to watch her. She’s as likely to eat her piglets as not. I’ve come in here sometimes and. . ” But Camille and I didn’t wait to hear any more. We raced outside, into the sunshine near the pump. “Yuck!” Camille said, and made retching noises. “How revolting!”

I could hardly answer. The idea of the cannibal sow eating her babies disgusted and terrified me. It reminded me of Hansel and Gretel, a story I’d always hated. I would see the sow’s small eyes in my dreams, I thought…

 

the Empeaux church today

Instructed by Maman, who wanted some peace, Papa often swept us along in his wake when he went to visit neighbours. To visit, for instance, the public telephone facility which was in Monsieur Martin’s house. Monsieur Martin lived over the street in one of those tall thin houses, and he was paid by the PTT to provide this service for the whole village. The PTT, like postal and telecommunications services the world over, had a probably undeserved reputation for casualness, a certain indolence and indifference to customers’ needs. Disgruntled customers maintained that its acronym stood for ‘Petits Travaux Tranquilles’ (Quiet Little Jobs’), maintaining that they’d once stood in a post office queue for ten minutes while staff discussed what they’d done on the weekend!

Be that as it may, Monsieur Martin was the representative of the PTT in Empeaux, and he took his job seriously. No PTT jokes in his presence!He was extremely well informed on the ins and outs of  everyone’s business in the village, and when we got our own telephone, Papa missed the snippets of gossip at the Martin house. Monsieur Martin, to my eyes, looked just like the other old men in the village, with his big flat beret, and soft speech full of succulent patois words, but he, too, wasn’t the storybook peasant we’d seen in books. He’d been a Communist in his youth, and had stood as a candidate for the Party in local elections, and he wasn’t married to the woman we all knew as Madame Martin, but lived with her in sin! I was amazed that a white-haired woman with a wispy bun and the traditional black floral pinafore of the region could possibly be a source of scandal. Like our other neighbour, Remi Peres, Monsieur Martin had little time for priests. “Oh—those ones!” he would say. “Those ones–like vultures, they are, waiting for you to be dying, so they can pounce, with their nonsense talk of heaven and hell!” I would watch Papa covertly, then, sure he’d be shocked, horrified, for religion means a good deal to him, but he would merely smile, shrug his shoulders. Yet if we’d said that. . .

Neighbours like champion gossip Monsieur Penain, who appeared on the dot, outside his door, every time any vehicle was heard in the village. He always came out with two buckets, as if he’d been just about to go and draw water, or scrub his step. You could see him, his eyes busy with speculation, suspicion, imagination, every time. Especially if it was a vehicle drawing up outside our house! At the time, my two older sisters, Dominique and Beatrice, respectively seven and five years older than me, kept a flock of admirers around them, and every time they came to visit, pop! Out would come Monsieur Penain and his buckets, just like one of those weather houses where the little man comes out if it rains. In fact, we had one of those weather houses, at home, and guess what the little man was called?

And the middle-aged woman who lived down one end of the village, Madame Lascours—she was a witch, from a long line of witches. People went to her for the curing of warts, of small ills, for counsel in love affairs and a spot of fortune-telling..

It seemed strange to me, as an adolescent: the village with its mixture of anticlericalism and piety, its acceptance of television singers and supernatural powers. It wasn’t consistent, I thought. And without consistency, how could you map the world, find your way around it?

You could listen to the stories of old Remi Peres, for instance, whom Papa called Remi but whom we had to call Monsieur Peres. He lived right next to the church, in an ancient, incredibly filthy hovel which looked as if it had survived from the Middle Ages. He’d been married, but his wife had taken off decades ago, with their child, grown-up now but who never came to see him. Now he lived with an old, blind dog, whom he treated alternately with extravagant affection and heedless cruelty. He drove a battered old 2CV, and lived on an army pension. Every week, he would drive to the nearby village of Saint Thomas and drink away a good portion of his pension in the cafe. And talk! How he could talk! Papa would invite him into the house, and he would sit there, firmly grasping a glass of some fiery spirit and talk, in a mixture of sardonic humour and menace. “When the Revolution comes, my dear sir,” he would say, “Ah, when it comes, all this will be ours!”

Papa wouldn’t bristle, his nostrils would stay pink, not pinch with white rage. He would say, softly, looking him in the eyes, “Ah, but then, Remi, I will be ready for you!”
Honour satisfied, Remi would start in on one of his stories. Scandalous stories, all, which he’d recount with a sly twinkle. Maman hated those stories. She would call out to us, curtly, “Come on! I’ve got some work for you to do!” and later, when he’d gone, she’d say to Papa, “Honestly, Georges, I don’t know why you encourage him. He is not a nice man, not a nice man at all. . ”

Most of the time, I saw him as a harmless teller of amazing stories, but we all knew there was another side to him. We’d seen him kicking his dog, and that gleam in his eyes when he talked about the Revolution wasn’t all make-believe. There was a harsh judgment, there, the pitiless resentment of the peasant. Once or twice, too, there had been another thing in his eyes, something as he looked at us, the girls, something creepy. But despite all this, his stories were amazing, evoking a bygone world, a world of folktale where the rich and powerful got their come-uppance, and the poor, but clever tricked them, easily!

Like the stories about the inhabitants of the castle. Remi said that the castle brought ruin and bad luck to whoever lived there–a fitting fate, in his opinion, for anyone who’d have the money to live in a castle. Before the present owners, there’d been an aristocratic young man who’d lived there–a pedale, as Remi called him, using the colloquial word for homosexual. ‘That one, he thought his crap didn’t stink,’ said Remi, ‘he lorded it over everyone. But then, well, you see, ‘ went on the old gossip, with a sly wink, ‘one of his servants, his cook, in fact, was also a pedale and he was in love with his boss and very jealous when the young chatelain would invite his other friends for their..er frolics. So, you see, one day, fed-up of it as he was, he poisoned the young chatelain’s dish, and the young man died, and then it all came out, all of it. . Such a to-do there was! ‘ And Remi would laugh, and we sat there, fascinated yet repelled, not only by the story but that someone should actually find it funny! He had lots of stories about priests, too, and what he said was their hypocrisy and how he himself, Remi Peres, had caught one in flagrante delicto with his housekeeper. It was Papa’s turn to frown at us, then, and say, “Haven’t you lot got something you should be doing?”

Because there were no shops in the village, mobile shops came once a week. There was a baker, an ordinary butcher and a horse butcher, and a grocery van. The vans would draw into the main streets, horns sounding, and people would pour out. All of them–the Vaccarones and the Penains, the Lascours and the Peres, and the other people who lived further down in the village.

But not the inhabitants of the castle. Occasionally, you’d see the son tearing out in his new sports car, doing wheelies down the street, and disappearing in a cloud of dust, but he never stopped to speak to anyone. His father, who owned the ceramics factory, was also a doctor, and Remi’s story of the Castle Curse seemed to be vindicated when several things happened to the castle family. The son, coming home late at night from a party, knocked down and killed a child on a bike. He was arrested, sent to gaol, and his mother declined visibly. And then his father was arrested for fraud and sent to prison himself. .

But that was several years in the future. Now, the village stands around the mobile shops, gossiping, passing traditional compliments and insults with the shopkeeper. “Call that a sausage?”

“Well, madame, that is the best sausage in the region, that’s all!”

“Navel oranges. . hmm. .  foreign, aren’t they?”

“Yes, of course, they’re from California! And look, madame, the best apples. Golden Delicious, no less!”

It seemed that everyone wanted the new, the strange, the foreign. I saw Remi Peres’ raised eyebrow when Maman said to the grocery man, “Golden Delicious? Horrible, floury things! Where are our good, traditional apples, the reinettes?”

She was several years too early, in her desire for the traditional, the old-fashioned, the crafted myriad varieties of apple as against the mass-produced EEC fluff. The others shook their heads.

“You have to move with the times, madame! These are modern times!” And Maman would give an angry, small laugh.

And then there was the glas, sounding out over the village. The glas, the ringing of the bells for the dead, the bells tolling, strange, portentous, somehow chilling. It rang several times when we were there, for the old, reaped by age, the young, felled by accident. Another grave in the cemetery, already filled with carefully-maintained graves and sepulchres. Everyone came to the burials, everyone, even those who hadn’t really known the dead, even those who despised priests and religion–for the burials were always attended by a priest–and for a long time I thought it was to show solidarity, the ancient togetherness of the peasant community. But then, one day, with the glas sounding, tolling, over the village, the procession wending its way down to the graveyard, we heard a conversation between two mourners. Remi Peres and Madame Lascours, or maybe it was someone else he was addressing.

“Who is it that the bell is tolling for?” she said. “Who has died?”

And he looked at her, the sly smile in his eyes. “I have no idea, madame, no idea! But if it is not for me, and it is not for you—why should we care, who it’s for?”

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To celebrate Shakespeare

 

will shakespeareToday, April 23, 2016, marks the four hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and celebrations of the great writer’s life and work are planned all over the world, including of course in his home town of Stratford Upon Avon. 

As is the case for so many other writers, Shakespeare has been a big influence and inspiration for me, from the time I first encountered his work as a child–something I wrote about in an essay called Puck’s Gift, published in Reimagining Shakespeare for Children and Young Adults, edited by Naomi J.Miller. But instead of telling you about how Shakespeare had influenced me, I thought I’d show it; and celebrate the wonderful Will in my own way, by posting the first chapter from Malvolio’s Revenge (2005), one of the six of my novels which have been directly inspired by his work. Malvolio’s Revenge, set amongst a troupe of travelling players in Louisiana in 1910, is based, of course, on Twelfth Night, which is possibly my favourite of all Shakespeare’s plays.  The other novels are Cold Iron(1998, inspired by A Midsummer Night’s Dream), The Tempestuous Voyage of Hopewell Shakespeare (2003, inspired by The Tempest and Twelfth Night); The Madman of Venice(2009, based on The Merchant of Venice and Romeo and Juliet); The Understudy’s Revenge (2011, based on Hamlet) and My Brother Will (2013, an evocation of a year in Shakespeare’s adolescence, as recounted by his brother Gilbert).

Shakespeare novels shelf

As well, for those interested, there’s Shakespeare’s Last Play, a rather strange little cross between novella and play that I wrote some years ago and published as a free ebook you can read online.

And now, without further ado, let me take you travelling back in time to 1910 in the Louisiana countryside, and a very rainy night..

Malvolio’s Revenge

by Sophie Masson

One

 

Toby had never seen so much rain. No soft veil of mizzle, no needles of drizzle, not even stormbucket rain, but great  relentless waterfalls, drowning everything: road, wagon, horses, Toby himself. At least it was not cold, he told himself, despite it being Christmas Eve(and some Christmas Eve this was turning out to be!) But no-one could stay warm for long out in this deluge, and Toby was soaked, not to the skin, not to the bone, but to the very marrow of the very bone. His feet sank deep into the mud at every step, the mire sucking at his boots with increasing vigour, as he tried to encourage poor Slender and Shallow to keep struggling on.

The rain had come on with such suddeness, half a mile or so back, that there had been no way they could find shelter quickly, but must keep going as best they could. There should be  houses and even a little settlement not too far away–or so it said on the map–and so Toby had been detailed to guide the anxious draughthorses in the right direction. But even by the light of the lantern he held in his hand, he could barely see more than a few inches in front of his nose.  Occasionally, a tree would loom at him out of the gloom: the strange live oaks one saw everywhere in this place, still green in winter, but ghostly in the pale light of the lantern, with the moss hanging from their drenched black branches like the tattered rags of criminals hanging on the gallows. Far above the sunken road was the levee which held back the huge swollen river, whose muffled but still menacing roar could be heard even through the din of the rain.

Water, water everywhere, thought Toby, sneezing violently and tugging at Slender’s rein to stop him from stumbling. Water–this damned country is only an excuse for land, it’s just a floating bit of driftwood on a huge black current. Our wagon’s a frail little ship, and soon enough we’ll be wrecked, swept away like so much flotsam, drowned by water above and below!

To keep fear away, he cursed quietly to himself; cursed the weather, the benighted place in which he found himself; cursed his uncle’s folly in bringing them out here into this sodden countryside. But most especially, he cursed the memory of self-appointed New Orleans festivities planner Roland Bourgeois Batiste, apparently a ‘good friend’ of Toby’s uncle Theo, who–for a goodly sum of money–was supposed to have organised for them a perfect venue in the city. When they had arrived, however, the flamboyant Monsieur Batiste had advised them that after all there were no theatres that could accomodate the company in the city. After all, he said with many gestures designed to prove his good will and his helplessness–after all, it was coming up to Carnival time, everything was packed full–but out in the country, people hungered after culture. He had taken the liberty of setting up a few places for them, out there. And if their country tour went well, why, it went without saying that it would be a lot easier to prise open New Orleans doors. In fact, the rich planters out in the country would be only too delighted to help open those doors for them, once they’d seen the quality of the show.

Ha! That had been just the way to handle the principal of the Tridlingham Troupe, Toby’s own uncle Theo, thought Toby bitterly. Theo Tridlingham had been a little crestfallen at first, after Batiste’s revelation; but his irrepressibly optimistic nature had taken over, then, and he had actually thanked the swindling son-of-a-seacook! Armed with Batiste’s ‘booking-sheet’, Theo’s optimism, and the rest of the company’s profound resignation, the Troupe had ventured out.

But alas! The Louisiana countryside, if it held people who hungered after culture, sure hid them well, maybe drowned in the swamps or the marshes or the blessed little bayous that covered so much of the place. More than once, the ‘venue’ Batiste had ‘booked’ for them had turned out to be either a figment of the swindler’s imagination, or else the victim of flood or sudden earthquake–for it had sure vanished off the face of the earth. Oh, it was true that once or twice, on an obscure plantation or two, they’d been able to stage Uncle Theo’s pride and joy, his once-modestly-famous play, Malvolio’s Revenge; but what Batiste had carefully failed to tell them was that a good few of the planters hereabouts were still primarily French-speakers and as such supremely uninterested in a once-famous English play that had, almost a lifetime ago, been presented in the London’s West End. And of the rest, most of the richer plantations would not even receive them; and those that did wanted to pay them only by board and lodging–which was uniformly poor. In the little villages and towns in between, they had fared just a little better, which was no great achievement. In the last week or so, in any case, even those little audiences had dwindled to invisibility, as everyone who was anyone at all(and even those who weren’t!) left the dank countryside in readiness to spend Christmas and then the Carnival period in lively, sociable New Orleans, whose doors, of course, had resolutely remained shut…

Unfortunately, these melancholy thoughts led inevitably to images of other things in Toby’s mind, things calculated to arouse not melancholy but fierce longing: namely, memories of the large and comfortable houses around the main square of the city, the fires that must be burning warmly in all those fireplaces, the cosy, noisy taverns, the brightly-lit, never-sleeping streets that at this season would be filling already with Carnival revellers: for Carnival lasted from Twelfth Night to Mardi Gras, and the Christmas period, too, was filled with merrymaking. That had been the idea, originally, in coming here: Uncle Theo was sure his play would go down perfectly in such a buzzing, pleasure-loving city. ‘You’ll see,’ he’d told the company enthusiastically–‘you’ll see, we’ll be box-office magic, in New Orleans! We’ll be eating and living high, my lords and ladies! You just wait and see!’

Living and eating high–ah! How Toby could just see the food laid out on tables–smoking hot pies, fried chicken, fragrant, spicy stews and soups, towering iced and sugared cake confections! Hell! He could more than see–he could actually smell them! The delicious smell filled his nostrils; his eyes closed in ecstasy; he lost his grip on the reins, and fell over in the mud, perilously close to the great wheels of the wagon, the lantern flying from his hand. He had the presence of mind to fling himself sideways, only to come into painful contact with something cold, solid and very hard indeed.

He swore loudly and got groggily to his feet, only to be nearly deafened by a stentorian voice in his ear.  ‘You idiot boy! What do you think you are doing? Do you want to kill us all?’

His uncle was looming over him, his face twisted with fright and anger, the rescued lantern in one hand, the other calming the draughthorses. Toby lost his own temper then. ‘We can’t go any further! We have to stop!’

‘Stop, is it?’ said his uncle, with a sarcastic lilt to his voice. He was drenched, now, too, the water running in great rivulets down his craggy, ruined face. ‘Stop where, may I ask, Toby? Have you found us a nice little tavern, or perchance a warm dry hotel?’

Toby was just about to answer back, hotly, when he saw something that made him forget his anger. ‘Look! Uncle Theo! Over there!’

The dim light of the lantern swinging in his uncle’s hand had fallen on the thing he had nearly knocked himself out on. It was a gatepost. Unmistakeably. A tall, solid gatepost, with something written on it. His uncle realised what it was immediately, too.

‘Hold Slender and Shallow, boy, ‘ he ordered. ‘I want to see properly.’

Toby did as he was told; and his uncle hurried over to the gatepost, and squatted on his heels, uncaring of the mud, holding the lantern high to illuminate the writing. ‘It’s faint,’ he muttered. ‘Let me see..here’s an I..an L, no, two L’s..a Y, is it? Hmm, yes. Then an R, another I, an E..’ He got up, slowly. ‘I do declare! This is a strange thing indeed! Wait here. i’m going to go and see.’ He squelched past Toby, and was soon lost to sight, only the faint glow of the lantern showing where he was going. Toby stood holding the horses, his mind whirling. What had his uncle seen?

‘Toby! Theo!’ A plaintive voice came from behind him, from the wagon. Toby sighed. ‘Yes, Madame Metanche?’ Though he looked in her direction, he could only dimly see her anxious face, peering from the unfastened opening of the covered wagon. The rain was easing off, thank goodness. But a fog was slowly taking its place. A fog that would grow thicker by the moment..

‘Toby! What, in the name of the blessed Virgin, is happening? Why have we stopped?’

‘We are shipwrecked, Madame,’ said Toby, lightly, unable to resist. She was so easy to tease, for the Tridlingham Troupe’s leading lady  did not understand metaphors, or jokes, or irony. She panicked at everything, made vast peaked mountains not merely of molehills, but of the shadow of molehills! He would not have teased her, mind you, if his uncle had been in earshot. Uncle Theo treated Mathilde Metanche like she might be a rare jewel, or perhaps an unexploded bomb.

She gave a little cry. ‘Shipwrecked? What is this you say? Is the river coming down on us? Is that why there is so much water?’

It had been her greatest fear ever since arriving in Louisiana. She did not like the look of the Mississippi, she said, it was too big and the land was too flat, and she didn’t trust the levees. She was sure one day they would burst and the big booming river would sweep everyone away.  ‘It could be,’ Toby muttered gloomily, enjoying his moment of power. ‘It could be.’ And squealed in outrage in the next moment, as his ear was twisted.

‘Stop it, you rascal!’ It was the light voice of Gabriel Harvey, who played all the ‘character’ parts in the troupe–that is to say, he wasn’t handsome or stupid enough to be a leading man, and his dark, rough-cut face with its grey-green eyes was characterful enough. ‘You’re not the one has to calm Mathilde’s hysterics,’ he went on, calmly outstaring Toby’s fury. ‘So what the devil is going on? Where’s Theo?’

‘Down there,’ said Toby, crossly, rubbing at his ear.

‘Down there? In the fog? Has he lost his wits?’

‘Gatepost,’ explained Toby, sullenly. He could see the dim glow returning, the vague shape of his uncle behind it. ‘There’s a house down there somewhere.’

‘Well, thank the stars. Or whatever. ‘

‘Of course, that is, if they’ll let us in.’ A gloomy voice from the wagon. Gabriel laughed. ‘Trust you, Old Fate, to raise our spirits! I wondered why we brought you along.’

Toby couldn’t help grinning. Jean LaFete was the company’s clown–and in real life so morose and pessimistic that Gabriel had nicknamed him Old Fate, a play on the English sound of the clown’s name, which in French actually meant ‘the festival’.

‘Gentlemen!’ Theo Tridlingham squelched up to them. ‘Turn the wagon. There’s a house down there. I spoke to the housekeeper. They’ll take us in for the night, and set us on our way tomorrow. There’s soup and bread, and a warm fire for us, my children! We’ll have a good Christmas Eve, after all.’ He paused. ‘I can’t help but think it’s a lucky omen for us, given the name of this estate. Which is Illyrie! And that’s Illyria in French, my friends!’

They stared at him for an instant. Then Gabriel intoned, in sepulchral tones, ‘Illyria, is it? I would not care if it were Hell itself, opening its gates to us this evening, and the Devil himself who was to be our host! ‘

‘You are a heathen and a savage, Gabriel Harvey,’ came Jean la Fete’s voice. ‘Take care you do not bring disaster down on us with such words! This is a strange, sorcerous country–who knows what ears are listening?’

‘Who knows indeed, Old Fate?’ laughed Gabriel, not at all put out. ‘Come on, then, Theo–lead the way, to Hell or Heaven or Illyria, I care not at all, long as it’s nice and dry!’

And so say all of us, thought Toby as they slowly manoeuvred the horses around to head down the rutted, oak-lined track that led to Illyria.

 

 

 

A menu from Jules Verne’s Mikhail Strogoff

Eagle Books logoI’ve cross-posted this short, appetising extract from Jules Verne’s Mikhail Strogoff on my food blog. Appropriately, it features a description of food, from a fantastic, colourful chapter where our hero stops for the night at the town of Nizhny Novgorod, where a massive multinational fair is taking place.

Translation copyright Stephanie Smee. Edition copyright Eagle Books.

And thus Mikhail Strogoff found himself wandering through the town, not unduly troubled, on the lookout for some form of accommodation where he might spend the night. But he was not trying very hard and, had it not been for his gnawing hunger, he would probably have wandered the streets of Nizhny Novgorod until morning. For he was more interested in a meal than a bed. And he found both under the shingle of the Town of Constantinople.russian wooden house

The innkeeper there offered him a perfectly satisfactory room, sparsely furnished, but equipped with both an image of the Virgin and portraits of various saints, for which some golden fabric served as frames. He was promptly served up some duck stuffed with spiced mince, drowning in a heavy cream sauce, some barley bread, some curds, some cinnamon-flavoured sugar and a mug of kvass – a type of beer very common in Russia. He would have been satisfied with less. So, he ate his fill; more so than his neighbour at the dining table, who, being an adherent of the ‘Old Believers’ movement of the Raskolniks and having taken a vow of abstinence, left the potatoes on his plate and was careful not to add sugar to his tea. kvas

Having finished his supper, instead of going up to his room, Mikhail Strogoff headed automatically back out to resume his walk around town. But though the long twilight was still drawing on, the crowd was already dissipating, and little by little the streets were emptying as everybody headed for home.