Chapter II.

It is scarcely necessary to dwell on the scenes which occurred between the time I first sprang from the earth and that in which I was “pulled.” The latter was a melancholy day for me, however, arriving prematurely as regarded my vegetable state, since it was early determined that I was to be spun into threads of unusual fineness. I will only say, here, that my youth was a period of innocent pleasures, during which my chief delight was to exhibit my simple but beautiful flowers, in honor of the hand that gave them birth.

At the proper season, the whole field was laid low, when a scene of hurry and confusion succeeded, to which I find it exceedingly painful to turn in memory. The “rotting” was the most humiliating part of the process which followed, though, in our case, this was done in clear running water, and the “crackling” the most uncomfortable. Happily, we were spared the anguish which ordinarily accompanies breaking on the wheel, though we could not be said to have entirely escaped from all its parade. Innocence was our shield, and while we endured some of the disgrace that attaches to mere forms, we had that consolation of which no cruelty or device can deprive the unoffending. Our sorrows were not heightened by the consciousness of undeserving.

{“rotting” was ... = to prepare flax for weaving as linen it is softened (technically, “retted”) by soaking in water, separated from its woody fibers by beating (“scutched” — this seems to be what Cooper means by “crackling”), and finally combed (“hatcheled”)}

There is a period, which occurred between the time of being “hatcheled” and that of being “woven,” that it exceeds my powers to delineate. All around me seemed to be in a state of inextricable confusion, out of which order finally appeared in the shape of a piece of cambric, of a quality that brought the workmen far and near to visit it. We were a single family of only twelve, in this rare fabric, among which I remember that I occupied the seventh place in the order of arrangement, and of course in the order of seniority also. When properly folded, and bestowed in a comfortable covering, our time passed pleasantly enough, being removed from all disagreeable sights and smells, and lodged in a place of great security, and indeed of honor, men seldom failing to bestow this attention on their valuables.

{cambric = a fine white linen, originally from Cambray in Flanders}

It is out of my power to say precisely how long we remained in this passive state in the hands of the manufacturer. It was some weeks, however, if not months; during which our chief communications were on the chances of our future fortunes. Some of our number were ambitious, and would hear to nothing but the probability, nay, the certainty, of our being purchased, as soon as our arrival in Paris should be made known, by the king, in person, and presented to the dauphine, then the first lady in France. The virtues of the Duchesse d’Angoulême were properly appreciated by some of us, while I discovered that others entertained for her any feelings but those of veneration and respect. This diversity of opinion, on a subject of which one would think none of us very well qualified to be judges, was owing to a circumstance of such every-day occurrence as almost to supersede the necessity of telling it, though the narrative would be rendered more complete by an explanation.

{Dauphine = Crown Princess; Duchesse d’Angoulême = Marie Thérèse Charlotte (1778-1851), the Dauphine, daughter of King Louis XVI and wife of Louis Antoine of Artois, Duke of Angoulême, eldest son of King Charles X — she lost her chance to become queen when her father-in-law abdicated the French throne in 1830 — Napoleon said of her that she was “the only man in her family”}

It happened, while we lay in the bleaching grounds, that one half of the piece extended into a part of the field that came under the management of a legitimist, while the other invaded the dominions of a liberal. Neither of these persons had any concern with us, we being under the special superintendence of the head workman, but it was impossible, altogether impossible, to escape the consequences of our locales. While the legitimist read nothing but the Moniteur, the liberal read nothing but Le Temps, a journal then recently established, in the supposed interests of human freedom. Each of these individuals got a paper at a certain hour, which he read with as much manner as he could command, and with singular perseverance as related to the difficulties to be overcome, to a clientele of bleachers, who reasoned as he reasoned, swore by his oaths, and finally arrived at all his conclusions. The liberals had the best of it as to numbers, and possibly as to wit, the Moniteur possessing all the dullness of official dignity under all the dynasties and ministries that have governed France since its establishment. My business, however, is with the effect produced on the pocket-handkerchiefs, and not with that produced on the laborers. The two extremes were regular cotés gauches and cotés droits. In other words, all at the right end of the piece became devoted Bourbonists, devoutly believing that princes, who were daily mentioned with so much reverence and respect, could be nothing else but perfect; while the opposite extreme were disposed to think that nothing good could come of Nazareth. In this way, four of our number became decided politicians, not only entertaining a sovereign contempt for the sides they respectively opposed, but beginning to feel sensations approaching to hatred for each other.

{bleaching grounds = open spaces where newly woven linen is spread to whiten in the sun; legitimist. ... = this paragraph refers to controversies, before the French “July Revolution” of 1830, between rightist (côté droit = right side) legitimists, who read the official “Moniteur” newspaper and supported the absolutist Bourbon monarchy of King Charles X, and leftist (côté gauche = left side) liberals, who read “Le Temps” and argued for reform or revolution; “nothing good could come of Nazareth” = from the Bible, John, I, 46: “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth”}

The reader will readily understand that these feelings lessened toward the centre of the piece, acquiring most intensity at the extremes. I may be said, myself, to have belonged to the centre gauche, that being my accidental position in the fabric, when it was a natural consequence to obtain sentiments of this shade. It will be seen, in the end, how prominent were these early impressions, and how far it is worth while for mere pocket-handkerchiefs to throw away their time, and permit their feelings to become excited concerning interests that they are certainly not destined to control, and about which, under the most favorable circumstances, they seldom obtain other than very questionable information.

{ centre gauche = center left, i.e., moderate left}

It followed from this state of feeling, that the notion we were about to fall into the hands of the unfortunate daughter of Louis XVI excited considerable commotion and disgust among us. Though very moderate in my political antipathies and predilections, I confess to some excitement in my own case, declaring that if royalty was to be my lot, I would prefer not to ascend any higher on the scale than to become the property of that excellent princess, Amélie, who then presided in the Palais Royal, the daughter and sister of a king, but with as little prospects as desires of becoming a queen in her own person. This wish of mine was treated as groveling, and even worse than republican, by the coté droit of our piece, while the coté gauche sneered at it as manifesting a sneaking regard for station without the spirit to avow it. Both were mistaken, however; no unworthy sentiments entering into my decision. Accident had made me acquainted with the virtues of this estimable woman, and I felt assured that she would treat even a pocket-handkerchief kindly. This early opinion has been confirmed by her deportment under very trying and unexpected events. I wish, as I believe she wishes herself, she had never been a queen.

{daughter of Louis XVI = the dauphine, Marie Thérèse Charlotte, Duchesse d’Angoulême, mentioned above; Amélie = Marie Amélie (1782-1866), daughter of King Ferdinand IV of Naples, sister of King Francis I of The Two Sicilies — reluctantly became queen in France when her husband the Duke of Orleans seized the throne from Charles X on July 31, 1830, and was proclaimed King Louis Philippe of the French}

All our family did not aspire as high as royalty. Some looked forward to the glories of a banker’s daughter’s trousseau, — we all understood that our price would be too high for any of the old nobility, — while some even fancied that the happiness of traveling in company was reserved for us before we should be called regularly to enter on the duties of life. As we were so closely connected, and on the whole were affectionate as became brothers and sisters, it was the common wish that we might not be separated, but go together into the same wardrobe, let it be foreign or domestic, that of prince or plebeian. There were a few among us who spoke of the Duchesse de Berri as our future mistress; but the notion prevailed that we should so soon pass into the hands of a femme de chambre, as to render the selection little desirable. In the end we wisely and philosophically determined to await the result with patience, well knowing that we were altogether in the hands of caprice and fashion.

{Duchesse de Berri = Marie Caroline (1798-1870), wife of Charles Ferdinand of Artois, Duke of Berry, second son of King Charles X; femme de chambre = lady’s maid}

At length the happy moment arrived when we were to quit the warehouse of the manufacturer. Let what would happen, this was a source of joy, inasmuch as we all knew that we could only vegetate while we continued where we then were, and that too without experiencing the delights of our former position, with good roots in the earth, a genial sun shedding its warmth upon our bosom, and balmy airs fanning our cheeks. We loved change, too, like other people, and had probably seen enough of vegetation, whether figurative or real, to satisfy us. Our departure from Picardie took place in June, 1830, and we reached Paris on the first day of the succeeding month. We went through the formalities of the custom-houses, or barrières, the same day, and the next morning we were all transferred to a celebrated shop that dealt in articles of our genus. Most of the goods were sent on drays to the magazin, but our reputation having preceded us, we were honored with a fiacre, making the journey between the Douane and the shop on the knee of a confidential commissionaire.

{Picardie = province of France, north of Evreux; barrières> = gates at the edge of Paris, where local customs duties were collected; magazin = shop; fiacre = a kind of carriage; Douane = customs house; confidential commissionaire = special messenger}

Great was the satisfaction of our little party as we first drove down through the streets of this capital of Europe — the centre of fashion and the abode of elegance. Our natures had adapted themselves to circumstances, and we no longer pined for the luxuries of the linum usitatissimum, but were ready to enter into all the pleasures of our new existence; which we well understood was to be one of pure parade, for no handkerchief of our quality was ever employed on any of the more menial offices of the profession. We might occasionally brush a lady’s cheek, or conceal a blush or a smile, but the usitatissimum had been left behind us in the fields. The fiacre stopped at the door of a celebrated perfumer, and the commissionaire, deeming us of too much value to be left on a carriage seat, took us in her hand while she negotiated a small affair with its mistress. This was our introduction to the pleasant association of sweet odors, of which it was to be our fortune to enjoy in future the most delicate and judicious communion. We knew very well that things of this sort were considered vulgar, unless of the purest quality and used with the tact of good society; but still it was permitted to sprinkle a very little lavender, or exquisite eau de cologne, on a pocket-handkerchief. The odor of these two scents, therefore, appeared quite natural to us, and as Madame Savon never allowed any perfume, or articles (as these things are technically termed), of inferior quality to pollute her shop, we had no scruples about inhaling the delightful fragrance that breathed in the place. Desirée, the commissionaire, could not depart without permitting her friend, Madame Savon, to feast her eyes on the treasure in her own hands. The handkerchiefs were unfolded, amidst a hundred dieux! ciels! and dames! Our fineness and beauty were extolled in a manner that was perfectly gratifying to the self-esteem of the whole family. Madame Savon imagined that even her perfumes would be more fragrant in such company, and she insisted on letting one drop — a single drop — of her eau de cologne fall on the beautiful texture. I was the happy handkerchief that was thus favored, and long did I riot in that delightful odor, which was just strong enough to fill the air with sensations, rather than impressions of all that is sweet and womanly in the female wardrobe.

{ usitatissimum had been left behind = the species name of linen means “most useful”; Madame Savon = literally, Mrs. Soap; articles = short for articles de Paris or Parisian specialties; dieux! = dear me!; ciels! = good heavens!; dames! = my oh my!}