Vine Manor

Chapter 3

Paris! As the train sped her closer to the Gare du Nord where she would meet her father and his new wife, Helena did her best to appear a calm and seasoned traveller in spite of her growing excitement. Soon she would see the Eiffel Tower and the great cathedral of Notre Dame and walk by the banks of the Seine. It was wonderful to be in France, her birthplace and her father's home, home also to Picasso, Salvador Dali and many other great artists and writers. Soon she would be in the City of Lights, the city of culture, beauty, romance. For the next month, Paris would be her home!

"I hope you do not find my new apartment too small, after the spacious accommodation at Vine Manor," her father said as he showed her to the bedroom that she was to use.

"Of course not! Your home is lovely, so full of light. This new furniture looks so much better than the old antiques people have in England."

"We will not be spending too much time at home; we must take you out and show you Paris. The cafes, the Champs-Elysees, the new surrealist exhibition, everything! Mignon will take you shopping, won't you, darling?"

Helena knew they would never understand that a young woman in Paris for the first time might not wish to spend a great deal of time and money in the shops. For one thing, she was sure the money Maria had given her would not go very far in some of the large, elegant buildings they had passed on her way to the apartment. But she found her father was as generous with his daughter as with his young wife and some new dresses were bought in the Place Vendome, at prices that would have shocked her friends in England. The dresses were needed at once; they hardly ever spent an evening at home. Before she had been there a fortnight Helena had seen the famous Josephine Baker perform "J'ai Deux Amours" and heard orange-haired diva Bricktop sing the song written for her by Cole Porter, "Miss Otis Regrets".

On the night of the visit to Chez Josephine they were accompanied by a friend of Mignon's, a man of about thirty, whose tall thin frame was elegantly dressed in black. His name was Henri, he told her, and he was a poet. He knew some English but his accent was so strong that Helena found it difficult to understand him. She decided to speak to him in French. She had been good at languages at school and spoke both French and German. She also knew a good deal of botanical Latin. Pierre Colville spoke English almost perfectly; Mignon, his new bride, could hardly speak it at all. So they spoke French, and when Helena did not understand her father translated for her.

Henri claimed to know most of the community of writers and artists who lived in Paris at that time. He had met Hemingway at the Dome, he had met the eccentric Irish writer Joyce at his favourite restaurant, Michauds. He had once sat at the same dinner table as Picasso and passed him a bottle of wine. He knew many of the surrealists and claimed surrealist influences for his own work. His circle of friends included Breton, Ernst, Eluard and Man Ray. Though he had never met Salvador Dali, he had heard he was completely mad. He offered to take Helena, if she was interested, to an exhibition of surrealist art that was causing a sensation among the cultural elite of Paris. Helena accepted at once. It all sounded much more exciting than the few oil paintings they had at Vine Manor; landscapes of fields with horses and portraits of long-haired languid beauties. Pierre and Mignon thanked Henri for his offer. While they both felt Helena should not miss the chance to see this controversial exhibition, modern art was something they did not like or understand and they were very happy not to have to take her.

Helena was not disappointed with the exhibition; it was as novel and as shocking as she had hoped. There were strange eerie landscapes filled with shapes unlike anything to be seen in reality. Giant malevolent birds flew through dark mysterious forests. Towers rose high above a city of ice, lit by the pale grey light of a rising moon. An enormous eye seemed to blindly reflect the sky. Henri explained that the paintings expressed not what was seen directly by the painter's eye, but indirectly, by the subconscious mind of the artist. Only this way could they appeal, as real art should, not just to the eye but to the subconscious mind of the viewer. Henri knew quite a few people there and had rapid conversations with them in French which Helena found hard to follow. As they were leaving a man came up and spoke angrily to Henri. They argued in rapid French for a few minutes. Seeing that the argument was starting to attract more attention than the art, the man turned and walked away.

"I was hoping to avoid him, but he caught me after all," Henri apologised as they left the exhibition rooms. "That was Andre Breton, the self-styled leader of the Surrealist movement. He is angry because I have got a little job as an actor, in a film directed by a man he detests, Jean Cocteau. The film is called "Le Sang d'un Poet". It is only a small part and the money is not so good, but I am doing it to be part of a work of art, you understand."

"Why does he hate Cocteau so much? I've heard of his films and from what I've seen today I'd expect him to have a lot in common with the surrealists."

"But that is exactly why! Breton cannot stand it that Cocteau uses some of the ideas that inspire Surrealism without bowing to the ideology he imposes on his group. Even on me, as you see. But I have rebelled; I admire Cocteau and I am proud to work with him."

"I will watch out for you in the film if I get a chance to see it," Helena promised.

To escape the crowds in the Boulevard St. Germain they turned into the quieter Rue de l'Odeon. At once Helena's attention was caught by a shop sign in English. In faded letters over the window the sign said "Shakespeare and Company". It was a bookshop. Helena went closer to look at the books displayed in the window. Right in the centre of the display was the famous novel "Ulysses", banned by the Puritans who made English law but freely available in more liberal France.

"This bookshop is a meeting place for American writers," Henri told her. "Shall we go in?"

There were no famous Americans in the bookshop that afternoon, but there was a wide selection of books by American writers, including both fiction and non-fiction. Helena soon found a book on folk medicine in America which she scanned eagerly for new information on herbal remedies.

"Do you find that interesting?" Henri asked, amused. "I prefer the poetry section myself."

"I'm studying the effects of some of the rare medicinal herbs we have in my part of England. Some people say it's all old wives' tales, but I have heard of several cases where doctors have despaired of finding a cure which has then been achieved by herbal remedies. I'm keeping an open mind and finding out for myself using scientific techniques."

An old bearded man in a long cape was standing close by, also browsing through the health and medicine books. "Excuse me," he said to Helena, "I couldn't help overhearing your discussion. I have been engaged in the study of medicinal plants for many years, longer than you have been alive, I should think. I have gained a great deal of practical knowledge that I should like to pass on to the next generation, but there are not many young people these days who are interested in such things."

"The only people I know who care about herbs at all are a few uneducated old women who have had the knowledge passed down from their grandmothers. I've been learning from them for two years now and I don't think there's much more they can teach me. I'm sure there is a lot I could learn from you."

"Do you have time to visit my laboratory?"

"I would love to! Only if it's convenient for you, of course, Henri," she said, wanting to make it clear she was not prepared to go there alone.

"It's no problem for me, I have all the time in the world," Henri answered, "and I greatly admire women who have intellectual interests. Particularly of the scientific type, possibly because science is beyond the understanding of a mere poet! I will be happy to accompany you."

The herbalist's laboratory was in the basement of a tall narrow house, reached by walking through a maze of tiny cobbled back streets. Helena was very glad Henri was with her as otherwise she knew she could never have found her way back. The old man led them down a dimly lit staircase and unlocked a heavy door. The long dark room was lit only by a small high barred window at the front and another at the back. A heavy wooden bench ran down the centre and beside it were placed a few wooden stools, on which the old man invited them to sit. A few fresh plants, complete with soil-encrusted roots, lay on the bench. The walls were lined with old, uneven shelves which seemed to sag under the weight of specimen jars and dusty books that were crammed indiscriminately along their length. Helena's eyes were drawn to an old microscope with shining brass fittings, the only gleams of bright colour in that shadowy place.

"Are you looking at my microscope? It's more than a hundred years old. A good microscope will last for ever if you treat it well. These are some plants I collected early this morning. Can you tell me what they are?"

"I know this one. Anthriscus cerefolium. In England we call it Chervil."

"Yes, in France it is Cerefeuil. And these others?"

"This is Fumaria officinalis. We call it Fumitory. I don't know the others."

"This one is called Estragon, the Latin name is Dracunculus sativa. And here is one you have probably never seen, Chamaelirium luteum. This is Absinthe, used to make the drink of that name, Artemisia absinthium. I wouldn't be tempted to try the drink. They sell it in all the popular cafes, but it's much too strong for a young lady. Look at this one now, this is something very rare, I was lucky to find it this morning." He showed her a plant with small dark red flowers that looked almost black in the dim light. "Rumex nigra, or Fleur du Mort as we call it, for the very good reason that it can have fatal effects. It does have some medicinal uses but should be tried only in extreme cases, where there is no other hope."

At this point the conversation grew too technical for Henri and his attention wandered as he gazed round the room. As his eyes became more accustomed to the weak light he could make out more clearly the silhouettes of strange scientific instruments whose purpose he could not begin to imagine. The old man's talk of absinthe had reminded him that he could do with a drink. He began to wish that Helena would not chose to remain for too long.

To Helena the time seemed to pass very quickly. She heard a clock strike and was surprised to realise they had been there for almost an hour.

"I'm sorry, I should go soon. My father will be expecting me. I haven't been in Paris long and I don't want him to worry that I have got lost."

"Of course you must not cause your father to worry. I don't often meet someone who will listen to me so patiently when I talk about my hobby. I expect your friend is finding it very boring. But wait just a minute if you can and I will give you some samples of these rare plants to take with you. It pleases me to think I have made some small contribution to the researches of others."

Read Chapter 4