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There are houses in certain provincial towns whose aspect inspiresmelancholy, akin to that called forth by sombre cloisters, drearymoorlands, or the desolation of ruins. Within these houses there is,perhaps, the silence of the cloister, the barrenness of moors, theskeleton of ruins; life and movement are so stagnant there that astranger might think them uninhabited, were it not that he encounterssuddenly the pale, cold glance of a motionless person, whose half-monastic face peers beyond the window-casing at the sound of anunaccustomed step.

Such elements of sadness formed the physiognomy, as it were, of adwelling-house in Saumur which stands at the end of the steep streetleading to the chateau in the upper part of the town. This street,nowlittle frequented, hot in summer, cold in winter, dark in certainsections,is remarkable for the resonance of its little pebblypavement, always clean and dry, for the narrowness of its tortuousroad-way, for the peaceful stillness of its houses, which belong tothe Old town and are over-topped by the ramparts. Houses threecenturies old are still solid, though built of wood, and their diversaspects add to the originality which commends this portion of Saumurto the attention of artists and antiquaries.

It is difficult to pass these houses without admiring the enormousoaken beams, their ends carved into fantastic figures, which crownwith a black bas-relief the lower floor of most of them. In one placethese transverse timbers are covered with slate and mark a bluish linealong the frail wall of a dwelling covered by a roof /en colombage/which bends beneath the weight of years, and whose rotting shinglesare twisted by the alternate action of sun and rain. In another placeblackened, worn-out window-sills, with delicate sculptures nowscarcely discernible, seem too weak to bear the brown clay pots fromwhich springs the heart's-ease or the rose-bush of some poor working-woman. Farther on are doors studded with enormous nails, where thegenius of our forefathers has traced domestic hieroglyphics, of whichthe meaning is now lost forever. Here a Protestant attested hisbelief; there a Leaguer cursed Henry IV.; elsewhere some bourgeois hascarved the insignia of his /noblesse de cloches/, symbols of his long-forgotten magisterial glory. The whole history of France is there.Next to a tottering house with roughly plastered walls, where anartisan enshrines his tools, rises the mansion of a country gentleman,on the stone arch of which above the door vestiges of armorialbearings may still be seen, battered by the many revolutions that haveshaken France since 1789. In this hilly street the ground-floors ofthe merchants are neither shops nor warehouses; lovers of the MiddleAges will here find the /ouvrouere/ of our forefathers in all itsnaive simplicity. These low rooms, which have no shop-frontage, noshow-windows, in fact no glass at all, are deep and dark and withoutinterior or exterior decoration. Their doors open in two parts, eachroughly iron-bound; the upper half is fastened back within the room,the lower half, fitted with a spring-bell, swings continually to andfro. Air and light reach the damp den within, either through the upperhalf of the door, or through an open space between the ceiling and alow front wall, breast-high, which is closed by solid shutters thatare taken down every morning, put up every evening, and held in placeby heavy iron bars.

This wall serves as a counter for the merchandise. No delusive displayis there; only samples of the business, whatever it may chance to be,,such, for instance, as three or four tubs full of codfish and salt,a few bundles of sail-cloth, cordage, copper wire hanging from thejoists above, iron hoops for casks ranged along the wall, or a fewpieces of cloth upon the shelves. Enter. A neat girl, glowing withyouth, wearing a white kerchief, her arms red and bare, drops herknitting and calls her father or her mother, one of whom comes forwardand sells you what you want, phlegmatically, civilly, or arrogantly,according to his or her individual character, whether it be a matterof two sous' or twenty thousand francs' worth of merchandise. You maysee a cooper, for instance, sitting in his doorway and twirling histhumbs as he talks with a neighbor. To all appearance he owns nothingmore than a few miserable boat-ribs and two or three bundles of laths;but below in the port his teeming wood-yard supplies all the cooperagetrade of Anjou. He knows to a plank how many casks are needed if thevintage is good. A hot season makes him rich, a rainy season ruinshim; in a single morning puncheons worth eleven francs have been knownto drop to six. In this country, as in Touraine, atmosphericvicissitudes control commercial life. Wine-growers, proprietors, wood-merchants, coopers, inn-keepers, mariners, all keep watch of the sun.They tremble when they go to bed lest they should hear in the morningof a frost in the night; they dread rain, wind, drought, and wantwater, heat, and clouds to suit their fancy. A perpetual duel goes onbetween the heavens and their terrestrial interests. The barometersmooths, saddens, or makes merry their countenances, turn and turnabout. From end to end of this street, formerly the Grand'Rue deSaumur, the words: "Here's golden weather," are passed from door todoor; or each man calls to his neighbor: "It rains louis," knowingwell what a sunbeam or the opportune rainfall is bringing him.On Saturdays after midday, in the fine season, not one sou's worth ofmerchandise can be bought from these worthy traders. Each has hisvineyard, his enclosure of fields, and all spend two days in thecountry. This being foreseen, and purchases, sales, and profitsprovided for, the merchants have ten or twelve hours to spend inparties of pleasure, in making observations, in criticisms, and incontinual spying. A housewife cannot buy a partridge without theneighbors asking the husband if it were cooked to a turn. A young girlnever puts her head near a window that she is not seen by idlinggroups in the street. Consciences are held in the light; and thehouses, dark, silent, impenetrable as they seem, hide no mysteries.Life is almost wholly in the open air; every household sits at its ownthreshold, breakfasts, dines, and quarrels there. No one can passalong the street without being examined; in fact formerly, when astranger entered a provincial town he was bantered and made game offrom door to door. From this came many good stories, and the nickname/copieux/, which was applied to the inhabitants of Angers, whoexcelled in such urban sarcasms.

The ancient mansions of the old town of Saumur are at the top of thishilly street, and were formerly occupied by the nobility of theneighborhood. The melancholy dwelling where the events of thefollowing history took place is one of these mansions,,venerablerelics of a century in which men and things bore the characteristicsof simplicity which French manners and customs are losing day by day.Follow the windings of the picturesque thoroughfare, whoseirregularities awaken recollections that plunge the mind mechanicallyinto reverie, and you will see a somewhat dark recess, in the centreof which is hidden the door of the house of Monsieur Grandet. It isimpossible to understand the force of this provincial expression,thehouse of Monsieur Grandet,without giving the biography of MonsieurGrandet himself.

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