Preparation for that departure had begun when as a freshman at the university in St. Louis I had enrolled in an intermediate course in French, one I had selected because the catalogue told me that it was taught by a Frenchman, M. Albert Salvan. We began the course by reading excerpts from Le Grand Meaulnes (The Wanderer) a novel by Alain-Fournier that had appeared not long before. I was enchanted by the opening pages in which the narrator seemed to be moving in and out of a dream. As one of our first assignments we were asked to write a short composition and were given a number of topics from which to choose. “Silence” was the one I chose. I had put aside my homework and had walked with friends through the woods of the Barracks to a movie. On the way home our quiet steps over the leaves and fallen twigs broken only by the occasional hooting of owls and our eyes fixed on the vast star-filled sky above us, I thought of what Pascal had said: “The eternal silence of those infinite spaces frightens me.” And I thought how the French explorers cutting through the dark water of the Mississippi for the first time in their canoes must have felt at the center of that great silence. In a kind of passionate surge I put all this down, summoning up all the French words I could find and went to bed thoroughly unhappy with my effort. Two days later in class when M. Salvan returned our corrected papers, he kept mine in his hand and when I thought he was about to embarrass me because of my many errors, he read it from beginning to end to the class and said that it was a publishable essay and astonishing to be the work of a young American. He asked me to go with him to see the head of the French Department who immediately advised me to drop the education courses that I was taking and to enroll in advanced literature courses in French and to major in French since I clearly had such a good start in that language. Of course I took his advice, and soon, as a result of it, in a seminar on Marcel Proust that I had been allowed to audit, I met Stuart Chambers, who became my mentor and my closest friend. Stuart, five years older than I, was a senior not only fluent in French and conversant with the best French writers but also a poet who had published award-winning verse in a number of little magazines. Well over six feet, he seemed even taller because he walked with a buoyancy that made  him appear ready to leap forward at any moment to meet any new challenge that life might offer. He was not handsome but had ordinary delicate but unremarkable features, a pencil-thin nose and mouth, both set in a fair-skinned face that flushed easily. It was his eyes that were extraordinary, a dull gray-blue that lit up like the underside of a crashing wave when, with a resonate voice and quick bubbling laugh, he gave vent to an unending irrepressible enthusiasm on every subject he attacked.

           

There were several of us who gathered around him following intently every pronouncement he made on literature. He introduced us to Laforgue and Apollinaire and held forth at length on The Wasteland of T. S. Eliot and the Ulysses of James Joyce. Although at the time I understood very little about either one, I was sure that with Stuart’s assistance one day I would.

           

Stuart classified everyone he met according to whether or not he or she had a soul.

           

“He has no soul, that guy,” he would say emphatically about some blunt insensitive type.

           

I had never heard anyone outside of church speak of people’s souls, but I soon felt as he did that this was the most important of human attributes. Whatever else I had, having been admitted to Stuart’s little circle, I knew that I had a soul and that alone set me apart from my dull classmates.

           

Every young woman Stuart met was immediately under his charm and he was the envy of all the other young men who were studying literature or striving to create it. I stayed with him frequently at his house near the university and in one corner of the sun porch where I slept he had installed an archive of photographs of his conquests past and present. He spoke as if taking these beautiful creatures off to bed had been the easiest and most natural thing in the world. Seize the day indeed he did, and he had a mistress, as all young men, or at least all young Frenchmen that I had read about, were intended to have. He wrote poems and stories dedicated to the latest of these and set down in black ink on long legal pads in such careful script that it looked as if they had already been published.

 

 

A year after we met Stuart left on a fellowship to spend two years at the Sorbonne in Paris. As soon as he left, we all waited anxiously for his letters that detailed in that careful black script his adventures, and, as I gathered reading between the lines, his continuing conquests. No one waited more eagerly for those letters than his current love, Franny Millwood, a tall dark-haired willowy creature who looked, wherever she happened to be, as if she had just risen, naked and fine-boned, from a déjeuner sur l’herbe. She always had one or more of Stuart’s letters in her hand when she joined us for lunch at the Art School Cafeteria, the walls of which were covered by the latest awkward and rather oppressive nude studies executed by current art students. Franny would read us long segments of the letters, looking distractedly from time to time at her wristwatch, which she kept on Paris time so that she would know exactly what Stuart was doing at every hour of the day or night. I wasn’t at all certain that he was precisely where she pictured him to be. In any case, I was delighted to think of him there, enjoying all the sensuous pleasures that Paris had to offer, and I was determined to make every effort to join him as soon as possible.

 

I had been unable to convince the committee that handled my scholarship to send me for a junior year abroad and without their help I didn’t see how it would be possible to get to France otherwise. But then a classmate in one of my literature courses who had just returned from such a junior year described to me in detail the first summer months of the program spent in perfecting his French at the Institut de Touraine in Tours. This institute, in a part of France that prided itself on speaking the purest French, offered special courses for foreigners during the summer. I wrote to the Institut and decided at once to see if I couldn’t manage somehow to get there on my own the following year. With that thought in mind I accepted a summer job as chauffeur and babysitter for a rich family on the shores of Lake Michigan, saving every cent I made, and during the fall semester in St. Louis worked part-time as a waiter. No one in my immediate family had ever attended college, much less studied abroad, but my mother, convinced that this trip would be important for my future, managed to borrow the final $500 that I needed.

 

 

Since I was to travel by bus to New York, my parents decided that I could for a few dollars more travel first to see my eighty-three-year-old grandmother on the family farm in Louisiana and continue across the southern states to New York. And so I did in a long journey that took me back to the Louisiana of my early boyhood and opened up to me a part of the country that my ancestors had known but that was wholly new to me. As I sat in my cabin on the SS Champlain I went over it all ¾ my grandmother there in her rocking-chair on the porch of the house in which I was born, the sight of an armadillo digging below the steps, the taste of the cornbread, fried okra, biscuits and gravy that Grandma served up to me, the holly tree beside her in the yard, the bearded oaks, the pine forests and the red hills that I crossed, the musical voices and laughter of the blacks who filled the bus in Alabama whom I, the only white passenger, would willingly have sat among had the driver not summoned me to join him up front. On the final segment of the trip from Washington to New York, I met a fellow student who was also visiting the city for the first time. We decided once we had put down our bags in the YMCA where we were both staying to explore the city together. We wanted first to see Greenwich Village, about which we had heard so much. But we managed somehow to lose ourselves rather quickly on the subway, and when we finally emerged and entered a bar, we asked the bartender to direct us to Greenwich Village.

 

“You’re right in the middle of it,” he said.

 

We finished our beer and returned to the YMCA disillusioned that New York on this short inspection had failed to yield few of its secrets. But the SS Champlain, on which I embarked the next afternoon, was an immediate and thorough delight. My third-class cabin with its four bunks was far from luxurious, but the attention of the stewards made it so. And hearing everywhere around me the wonderful language that I had waited years to hear was thrilling. When the SS Champlain sailed, I was, for all practical purposes, already in France, and the central focus of life on board, as it is in the country to which the ship was headed, was the dining room. The newly appointed tables with their crisp white linen seemed to me straight out of an Impressionist painting, and I had been fortunate indeed in the dinner companions that had been selected to occupy mine with me. Presiding over it with immediate graceful but firm authority was Jacqueline Dumont, the wife of a horn player in the Boston Symphony. Alert, warm, and witty, her black hair always immaculately in place and her black eyes flashing, she was that proverbial French woman of a certain age who effortlessly exuded charm. She dressed with the greatest simplicity, but one knew that the scarf thrown in the seemingly most insouciant way had been arranged with the greatest care, as had everything about her person. Her presence was regal and commanding and her dinner companions placed themselves immediately and willingly at her service. Opposite her sat Janet Cleveland, in sharp contrast to Mme Dumont, plain but pretty, although in a rather severe way. Her near absence of make-up seemed to say that she was willing to let her face speak for itself but she was certainly not going to help it along. Her dress, like her entire person, was tasteful but direct, purposeful, and pleasant. She was a doctoral candidate at Cornell and her field was the seventeenth century. Her father, who had been the head of the French department at Brown, had a considerable reputation in that field. He had died just a few years before and she had set out to follow in his footsteps and do justice to his memory.  With him she had spent long periods in France, had been in school in Paris as a child, and spoke impeccable French. The fourth person at the table did not need to state his professional calling; it was written all over him ¾ in his looks, his manner, his speech, and in his trim black moustache as well as in the careful part in his slick black hair. He was pompous and slightly prissy, measured in his delivery and given to making long explanations where none were really called for. Professor Alberto Trova, who taught French and Italian at Oberlin College in Ohio, was on one of his regular summer excursions to France. He was the author of a best-selling French grammar, to which he lost no time in calling attention.

 

The conversation began with what appeared to me a thunderbolt, and it went on whizzing, streaking, past me like lightning from every side.

 

J’ai été sidérée!” Jacqueline Dumont exclaimed.

 

I have forgotten what it was that she was thunderstruck, flabbergasted, or staggered about. My dictionary told me that the adjective sidérée had originally meant “struck dead by lightning or apoplexy,” and in her constant use of it that appeared to be the force Mme Dumont gave it. If she was constantly sidérée, I was equally staggered by whatever it was she was staggered about and went back to my cabin, where I lay down in my upper bunk dizzy from it all.

 

If I was dazzled and somewhat confused by the first evening’s dinner conversation, I was put completely at ease by that of the following evening. The subject of poetry came up, and Jacqueline Dumont immediately declared that her favorite poem was Ronsard’s sonnet:

 

Quand vous serez bien vieille, au soir, à la chandelle . . .

 

And without any prompting, we were soon all four reciting it from memory. I was thrilled, and felt that with these beautiful lines of Ronsard’s, I had indeed in a sense seized the day and that everything would be smooth sailing from then on.

 

The four of us were constantly together ¾ at the table, on the deck, and in the evening at the movies. While Professor Trova paid court, if one can so designate his pompous fussing, to Janet Cleveland, I was always at the side of Jacqueline Dumont, adjusting the blankets on her deck chair, running errands for her. Responding to her every wish that was conveyed in her clear, beautiful, distinct French gave me a feeling of exhilaration. I was ready to do whatever she asked.

 

I had brought with me a copy of Ronsard’s poems. She immediately took it up and began to read the poems aloud, explaining and commenting as she went along. I was completely under her spell as she read out: 

                       

                        Mignonne, allons voir si la rose

                        Que ce matin avait déclose

                        Sa robe de pourpre au soleil . . .

 

And I was right there with Ronsard and his darling watching with delight the roses opening before their enchanted eyes.

 

The voyage went by so quickly and so pleasantly that I couldn’t believe finally that I was holding in my hand the handsome printed menu for the Dîner d’adieu.  Although as the menu put it, we were still en mer, it was clear that our crossing would soon come to an end. I loved every bit of that final dinner from the melon “frappé au porto” to the “turbotin poché sauce mousseline” to the “poularde en cocotte fermière” to its conclusion of  “biscuit glace Champlain’,” “Frivolités,” and “Corbeille de Fruits.”

 

When the dinner was over I asked each of my companions to sign that menu ¾ so that their names would be fixed indelibly in my memory along with the taste of that delicious dinner. We lifted our glasses in a series of toasts and went off to bed in high spirits, our circle of friendship to be broken the next day, but I trusted not forever, by our disembarking at Le Havre and boarding the boat train for Paris.

 

In the confusion of disembarking I was again at the side of Jacqueline Dumont. In a state of extreme agitation, she surveyed the scene of what the French term a bousculade. Everyone was rushing hither and thither, back and forth, up and down the gangplank, calling to one another, struggling to get help to put the luggage on to the train. Mme Dumont thrust some money into my hand and told me to rush at once to find a porter to deal with our luggage before they were all engaged. I managed to find one and went with him to see that everything was carefully in place on the train. I returned to tell Jacqueline Dumont that the mission had been accomplished. She still appeared nervous and it struck me that she would be clearly unhappy with whatever I had to say even before she heard what it was.

 

“How much did you tip the porter?” she asked. I hesitated and then told her. Whatever I had given him ¾ and it didn’t seem to me an exorbitant amount ¾ it was twice what he should have had.

 

Jacqueline Dumont was at once transformed, from the classic statuesque beauty that I had known during the entire crossing, into what seemed a raging beast. Her eyeballs swelled out, the lines on her cheeks hardened down to the corners of her mouth, from which poured a torrent of invective. She called me an absolute ass, a simpleton, an idiot, a good-for-nothing imbecile. With her dark curls shaking and her whole face moving towards me with a kind of crazy snarl, she looked for all the world like an enraged black poodle that was being held in check only by the gold chain around her throat. She finally calmed down long enough to tell me to go back immediately, find the porter, and ask for half of what I had given back. There was nothing to do but obey her and I set out again. When I found the porter and revealed the reason for my having sought him out a second time, he said that the money had gone into the pool with the other tips and that there was no way that he could possibly retrieve it.

 

Even more enraged by the failure of my second mission, Jacqueline Dumont let loose a further stream of invective. Even though I could ill afford it, I offered to reimburse her for the money that I had foolishly parted with, but that offer threw her into an even greater rage. She let me understand that it was not the money that mattered, it was the principle involved. She quieted down, turned away, and did not address another word to me during the entire train journey.

 

As I stared out at the trim fields and the harmonious little villages through which we passed, the dream into which I was traveling literally revealed itself minute by minute as from a Chinese scroll. As dark came slowly down and the lights went on in the villages, I realized that however harmonious and beautiful the scene at first appeared, my great dream would clearly have its rough moments.

 

 

 

Previous    

 

Back to Archives

William Jay Smith

Non-Fiction

 

Departure: the Great Dream by William Jay Smith

1 - 2