- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
We drew up to the small village of St. Georges-Motel, if drawing up can be thought of as in the 100-kilometers-per-hour class. My driver was Count Guy de la Vald�ne. He usually eschews the title Count, claiming that it is mostly handy for making difficult restaurant reservations. That afternoon he had picked me up in Paris for the ride 50 miles out into Normandy to his mother's place, near which there was to be a stag hunt—. in the grand fashion. On the way we had talked a little of the sport, my knowledge of which was limited to old tapestries in art books. He kept using the French pronunciation for the word "equipage" (ek-kee-pajjh) and, rather than admit my ignorance, I chose to think of the word as a description of a malaise, say a virulent form of hiccups, though, of course, my association fit none of the sentences.
It had been plain in the preceding days that my two years of college French taken a decade before were sloppily insufficient. All attempts had been met by querulous stares from waiters, bartenders, the concierge, even the gendarmes who after slight bows would glare snottily at my long hair and mustache. Perhaps they took me for some student bent on loosening a cobblestone to throw through the Van Cleef & Arpels window. Most likely though, subtracting the drama, I was regarded as just another dumdum tourist asking tourist questions.
The car had stopped before an enormous iron gate and an old lady ran out from a cottage to open it. We drove down a double aisle of trees, turned left crossing a moat and pulled into a courtyard. There in the twilight was a huge dwelling, which could be recognized from years of moviegoing as a chateau. My efforts toward nonchalance were rather weak. Walking in, I uttered a not very appropriate "nice place you've got here."
After a change of clothes and a quick drink—wishing I owned a cape or something similar—we went out to eat at a pleasant little auberge down the road, the inside of which resembled a florist's shop, so profuse were the fresh bouquets. Guy and his attractive wife Terry ate rather simply, but at their insistence I had a woodcock p�t�, a heavily truffled omelet and a huge serving of wild boar plus a few bottles of wine, fruit, cheeses and a tasting of several brandies.
The next morning I awoke early out of severe indigestion. Why must good food in quantity exact pain? I meditated on Igor Stravinsky's fabled digestive powers and the gourmandizing of Balzac and Diamond Jim Brady, who had willed his enormous stomach to a medical school for study. I opened the drapes and looked out on some mammoth formal gardens, stretching off to a colonnade a quarter of a mile in the distance. Eager to walk around the grounds, I tried to slip out but was met by a servant with coffee and croissants. Guy had mentioned that his mother raised horses and I wanted to give them a look. My years of familiarity with the animals (we keep three on our own farm) enable me instantly to tell a Shetland pony from a draught horse, and after many nasty falls and doggish bites I have settled on looking at these creatures from a distance as if they were ambulatory paintings.
I walked around for several hours. There were swans in the moat and in the several ponds and also a flock of wild mallards. A river and several brooks meandered through the grounds, which were covered with huge beech and oak trees. The stables, paddocks and neatly fenced pastures appeared to take up several hundred acres and I counted some 40 fillies, colts and mares. In the stable courtyard I tried some of my French on a man who quickly explained in good English that he had received some of his training at racing stables in the United States. Guy's mother, Mrs. Allen Manning, has a keen interest in thoroughbreds, as do her brothers, Raymond and Winston Guest. The horses trotted up to the fence to be lovingly petted; they lacked the gestures of hostility I associated with some quarter horses (offer a carrot and lose a finger).
Back to the ch�teau. On the third floor there was a charming room decorated in the manner of a small American cocktail lounge, a place to escape from the elegance of the rest of the ch�teau. I had a not very moderate Armagnac and played Pink Floyd's Atom Heart Mother on the phonograph, which made me a trifle homesick. I momentarily longed for my Merle Haggard albums and home where the grouse season was in full swing and also the steelhead fishing. I walked back downstairs and took one of Guy's fly rods and cast from the bridge into the moat for a while. There were no fish there other than minnows, but I wouldn't be able to fly-cast in a moat very often during this short life.
That afternoon we took a long drive through the forest where the hunt would take place. There was a startling resemblance to some of the good grouse and deer areas in Michigan, with swales and brambles and stunted oaks, the acorns covering the ground. Our drive ended at a pentagonal tower with a lawn in the center of the forest, the pavilion from which the hunt would begin. Just down the road we stopped at a white stucco farmhouse with a huge kennel behind it and met Serge Herv�, the head working man of the hunt, and his wife and daughter. Herv� exudes an impression of strength and incredible vitality—he does not walk, he struts and trots and bounces. We looked at the stag hounds, which are called chiens de meute. Each was named and was quickly introduced: Mass�na, Sombrero, Rubens, Tintoret, Quasimodo, Plantagenet, Tarzan, Potemkine, Offenbach and Opium, among others. Herv� entered the kennel and brought out the best of the hounds, Kroutchev, a 14-year-old with gray whiskers. He hugged and kissed the dog before returning it to the pen. Affectionate gestures seem common among the best dog trainers the world over. The markings and tickings were varied; some of the hounds resembled outsized foxhounds while others looked like blue-ticks and walkers. The sizes were impressive, running from 60 pounds up to one brute that looked as if he weighed over a 100. Their dispositions were sweet and Herv� had complete mastery over the whole lot, something I hadn't managed with a single pointer.
In the clubhouse were exhibited some of the trophies, the largest of which was hanging over the fireplace. The head approached the size of an elk's, though the spread of the rack was less. Herv� whispered, "C'est un Monsieur" which is the ultimate compliment, meaning a noble and huge stag that provided a difficult hunt. Then he showed us another head collected in the past year. He cursed the rack with some humor and explained that the stag had tossed him high over its head with its antlers when he had "served" it. When a stag is brought to bay by the hounds, part of Herv�'s job, certainly the most dangerous aspect, is to approach the stag and plunge a silver dagger into its heart. Often the stag isn't as fatigued as he might appear and Herv� has been gored and tossed a number of times. The act of serving requires bravery of a rare sort. Anyone who has watched two male deer or elk arguing over a harem during the rutting season will understand the butting and goring power of these animals. Or, if you're not familiar with these beasts, try to visualize being charged full tilt by a 400-pound mastiff with a set of well-honed horns on its head.
I loitered around for two more days picking up information and any incidental lore I could comprehend on the hunt from the ancient books in the chateau library. But the weather was too splendid to read. We made a desultory attempt at a duck hunt on some of the many ponds, but the ducks were near the pastures and one doesn't fire shotguns near a dozen foals whose net potential worth far exceeds what I'll earn in my lifetime. I also was apprehensive about scratching up a mint condition Holland & Holland, a shotgun that bore no resemblance to my own battered and overused bush double. There were a minimal number of brown trout in the river to cast to, most of them having been destroyed several years before by an effluent release from an upstream factory. At least that was like home!