On the roof of the ruined church we lay, basking amid the hot, powdery heather; the cinder-coloured roofs of the town flattened out beneath us—a ragged patch of dead, decayed colour, burnt, as it seemed, out of the rank, luscious green of the Rhône valley. Overhead, a thick, blue sky hung heavy, and away and away, into the steamy haze of midday heat, filtered the Tarascon road, a streak of dazzling white. To the east, the sun was beating on the sandy slopes; to the west, the old Papal palace, like a great, grey, sleeping beast, lifted its long, bare back above the roofs of Avignon.
The lizards scurried from cranny to cranny across the crumbling wall. Below, in the cloister, a cat was curled by a black stack of brushwood. The little place stood empty, and stillness seemed to have fallen over all things.
The warmth lulled one to a delicious torpor. I was thinking of the bustling Regent Street pavement, of the rumble of Piccadilly, of newsboys yelling special editions in the Strand, drowsily conjuring up these and other commonplace contrasts.
Then Jeanne-Marie Latou began to speak. She sat between us, with her legs hunched under her coarse, colourless skirt, and some stray wisps of hair looking dingily yellow against the clean white of her coiffe. As she talked, her brown skin puckered oddly about her tiny, shrunken eyes, and her hands—browned also and squat—clasped themselves around her knees. It was not often that Jeanne-Marie Latou spoke French; her vocabulary was quite simple and limited, and every now and then, with an impatient shake of her head, she would break out into patois.
She was telling us of her nephew in Tunis—“Un pays où on ne voit que des sauvages”—and of the sweetheart he had left behind at Barbentane; repeating by heart, one after another, his queer, bald, little letters—how he had been kicked by his horse (he was aspahi; “zouave à cheval” she called it), and had been sick ten days in the hospital; and how, without telling anyone, she had scraped together a hundred sous to send out to him. Somehow, irresistibly, while she chattered, I seemed to see that soldier nephew of hers—broad and straight and bronzed, his fez stuck jauntily on the back of his head, noisily noçant avec des camarades with those hundred sous, which old Tante Latou had sent out to him.
By-and-bye, she related her journey to Valence, in the time when she had worked as a cherry-packer for Madame Charbonnier in the Rue Joseph-Vernet, insisting with comical, energetic wrinklings of her forehead on her contempt for the jargon de l’Ardèche.... She had been to Marseilles, too, last year—that was a great journey—eighteen of them had gone from Villeneuve, “femmes et filles et trois garçons, dans un train ‘ambulant’—quatre francs et douze sous, aller et retour .... Marseilles, vous savez,” Jeanne-Marie Latou reiterated, “c’est quelque chose ... c’est quelque chose ... c’est quelque chose ... enfin, c’est la plus jolie ville que j’ai trouvée.”
Afterwards, starting to recall bygone times, she described the breaking up of the Chartreuse in quatre-vingt douze, and the selling of the whole building by auction in the little place, there, below us (not for money—no one in the pays had any money in those days—but for assignats), and, Jeanne-Marie Latou explained, “Ceux qui avaient peur n’en prenaient pas, et ceux qui n’avaient pas peur en prenaient.” And her father, who had been a stone-worker, over there at Les Angles, had bid douze cents francs d’assignats for the house where the supérieure had lived—douze cents francs d’assignats which no one had ever asked him to pay. There Jeanne-Marie Latou had always lived—seventy-seven years, it was now, as near as she could remember—she, and her husband who had been dead these twenty-three years. She could remember the time when the frescoes on the cloister walls were bright and beautiful, and no grass grew between the flags. Yes, she had seen all the other houses pass from family to family; there were six of them now who had the right to use the old church as a barn, “ma foi, elle est bien grande, l’église,” Jeanne-Marie Latou concluded, smiling knowingly at us, “Mais, quand même, ils se chicanent toujours.”