HERMITAGE

BOOKS A NEW STORY BY JULIAN BARNES
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THEY SAW IT FROM the Pauillac steamer, its pocked facade still quarter-lit by the early afternoon sun. They had embarked at Bordeaux, near the Place des Quinconces, at eleven, taking their place in cane seats beneath a striped awning. On the foredeck immediately below them clustered the third-class passengers, equipped with livestock, energy and noise. Florence felt debilitated by the evidence of normal vivacity undiscouraged by the heat; yet Emily seemed to feed from it.

"Look at that man, Florence. He does not just talk. He ... he dances his conversation."

"I expect he is saying something very mundane."

"If so," Emily came back, undaunted, "if so, then his manner permits him to transcend the mundane." She took out her sketch-book and began to draw the capering, sharp-nosed fellow, with his bare head, blue blouse, stubby pipe and liquid hands.

"I wish I discovered as much transcending as you, my dear Emily. It seems all around you. Now you transcend the man some more by turning him into art."

"You shan't put me out of humour. And besides, we all believe in transcendence. You merely disguise it by calling it practical improvement."

They sat quietly, two Englishwomen in their thirties, sailor-hats and brown shoes apiece, while the steamer headed past a winter woodland of ships' masts. Steam whistles were the loudest birdsong here. A tugboat named Ercule churned froth on the cafe au lait river; lesser ferries scudded across their bows like water-spiders. They had been away three weeks, and were at the most southerly point of their journey. Soon, as every year, they would be heading back to their separate Essex villages, to winds from the Urals and the chill conversation of turnip-farmers. Of course, these dinner clods cultivated other crops, but this was how, in their private conversations, Florence and Emily invariably designated them.

"I shall never marry," said Florence suddenly. She made it sound a matter of fact but not regret.

"In any case," her friend replied, continuing, or perhaps duplicating, the thought, "it is well known that a turnip-farmer is beyond any possible transcendence."

The little steamer tacked from bank to bank, picking up and depositing merchants and peasants, livestock and priests. The Garonne embraced the Dordogne and became the Gironde. Emily's skirt bulged with the wind until she pressed down on it a map marked with the chateaux of the Medoc. She settled a small pair of field-glasses over her spectacles and adopted a scholarly hunch familiar to her fellow-traveller. Alongside Beychevelle, Emily explained that the chateau had once belonged to an admiral, that every ship passing along the river had been at one time obliged to lower its sail, or baisser la voile, in homage, and that this phrase had been corrupted into the present name.

"Quite fanciful," commented Florence cheerfully.

Emily indicated Margaux and Ducru-Beaucaillou, Leoville-las-Cases and Latour, appending Baedeker embellishments to each name. Beyond Latour, the boat ran close to the bank as it headed up towards Pauillac. Ribbed vineyards ran away from them like green corduroy. A broken-down pier came into sight, followed by a patch of corduroy stained half-black. Then, a little higher up, a flat facade made biscuity by the sun, with a brief terrace half-obscuring the ground-floor windows. After a nudge of focusing, Emily detected that several balusters were missing from the balcony of the terrace, and others badly askew. Florence took the glasses. The facade had large holes gouged into it, there were some broken upper window-panes, while the roof appeared to have been given over to experimental agriculture.

"Not exactly our hermitage," she commented.

"So we shall visit tomorrow?"

This teasing pastime had evolved during the last two years of their French excursions. Idling glances proposed a different life: in a timbered Normandy farmhouse, a trim Burgundy manoir, a backwater chateau of the Berry. Lately, a new gravity of intention had arisen, which neither woman could quite admit. So Florence would announce that their hermitage had again not been found, and soon afterwards they would visit.

Chateau Dauprat-Bages had not been listed in the great Classification of 1855. It was a modest cru bourgeois, 16 hectares planted with cabernet sauvignon, merlot and petit verdot. During the last decade phylloxera had blackened its green corduroy, and some hesitant replanting had begun under its enfeebled and impoverished owner. Three years previously he had died, leaving all to a young nephew in Paris, who snobbishly preferred Burgundy and sought to divest himself of Chateau Dauprat-Bages as quickly as possible. But no neighbouring estate could be persuaded to take on the blighted vineyards; the regisseur and the homme d'affaires had therefore struggled on with casual labour, producing a wine which even they admitted had sunk to the level of a cru artisan.

When Florence and Emily returned for their second visit, Monsieur Lambert, the homme d'affaires, a short, black-suited man with a felt cap and a spiky moustache, his manner both fussy and domineering, turned suddenly to Emily, whom he judged the younger, and therefore the more dangerous of the two, and demanded, "tes-vous Americaniste?"

Misunderstanding him, she replied, "Anglaise."

"Americaniste?" he reiterated.

"Non," she replied, and he grunted approval. She felt she had passed some test without having been told what the test might be.

Next morning, over a breakfast of oysters and hot sausages at the Hotel d'Angleterre in Pauillac, Florence said musingly, "You cannot say that they have landscape here. It is more that they have contours."

"Then it will not seem entirely a change from Essex."

Both observed the seduction of might and could into is and will. They had travelled in France together for five summers now. In hotels they shared the same bed; at meals they permitted themselves wine; after dinner Florence would smoke a single cigarette. Each year had been a heady escape, both a justification of their life among the turnip-farmers and a rebuke to it. Their excursions among the French had so far been light-hearted, flirtatious. Emily now felt as if something - not destiny, but the lesser organisation that directed their lives - was calling her bluff.

"However, it is your money," she said, acknowledging that things had become very serious indeed.

"It was my father's money and I shall have no children."

Florence, the larger and slightly older of the two, had an oblique way of announcing decisions. She was dark and sturdy, with a deceptive style of down-to-earth discouragement. In truth, she was both more capable and more benign than she appeared, despite a docile preference for only the broader aspects of any project. Emily could always be relied upon to take care of the particularities; Emily, slim, blonde, neatly fussy, peering through gold-wired spectacles at notebook, sketch-pad, timetable, newspaper, menu, Baedeker, map, ticket and legal fine print; Emily, fretful yet optimistic, who now said wonderingly, "But we know nothing of making wine."

"We are not applying for posts as vendangeuses," Florence replied, with a lazy hauteur that was not wholly self-mocking. "Father did not understand how the saw-mill operated, but he knew that gentlemen required desks. Besides, I am sure that you will study the matter. It cannot be more complicated than ... cathedrals." She threw this out as a recent example, since in her view they had spent rather too much time beneath the statue of Bertrand de Goth, Archbishop of Bordeaux and later Pope Clement V, while Emily expounded on 12th-century Romanesque arches in the nave and a choir with double stalls from some other - no doubt earlier, or later - century.

The Burgundian nephew accepted Florence's offer, and she sold her house in Essex; Emily informed brother Lionel, the solicitor, that he would have to find himself another housekeeper (news she had longed to impart for some years). In the spring of 1890 the two women transplanted themselves irrevocably to France, taking with them no specific reminders of England except the grandfather-clock which had marked every hour of Florence's childhood. As their train pulled away from the quai d'Austerlitz at the Gare d'Orleans, Emily yielded up a final anxiety.

"You shall not be bored? I mean, with my company. This is not just an excursion."

"I have decided the chateau will bear your name," Florence replied. "I have always thought Dauprat-Bages quite lacking in romance." She re-pinned her hat, as if to ward off any protest. "In the matter of the turnip-farmers, I do not think their memory will fade so quickly. Such dancers! The clods scarcely noticed when they trod upon one!"

Mme Florence and Mme Emily re-engaged M. Lambert as homme d'affaires and M. Collet as regisseur on improved terms. M. Lambert then found them a housekeeper, three estate workers, a maid and a gardener. The shrubbery was dug out of the roof, the balusters mended, the pock-marked facade filled in, the pier rebuilt. Florence occupied herself with the house and presided over the newly-planted potager; Emily directed relations with the vineyard. The commune of Dauprat welcomed the women: they brought employment, and wished to restore a damaged vineyard to prosperity. No one objected when Chateau Dauprat-Bages became Chateau Haut Railly. Les Anglaises may have lacked religion, but they entertained the cure to tea each November, and solemnly attended his annual benediction of the vines in April. Such eccentricities as were observed could be lightly ascribed to the impoverished existence they must have previously endured on that distant island in whose cold, wet climate not even an Alsatian vine could flourish. It was noted, for instance, that they were great enthusiasts for domestic economy. A roast fowl might last them a week; soap and string were used until their final centimetre; linen was spared by the women's sharing a bed.

In late September a band of genial ruffians descended for the vendange; they were awarded huge dinners, and allowed to drink as much of the previous year's petit vin as they wished. Florence and Emily were impressed that drunkenness did not ensue. They were also surprised to see men and women working harmoniously alongside one another in the vineyard. M. Lambert explained that the women were paid less on the grounds that they talked more. With a few sly shakes of the head, he then described a particular local tradition. It was strictly forbidden for any of the vendangeurs to eat the grapes they were picking, and at the end of each morning the women were obliged to put out their tongues for inspection. If the proof was purple, then the overseer would be entitled to claim a kiss in punishment. Florence and Emily kept to themselves the reflection that this sounded a little primitive, while the homme d'affaires concluded, with a wink bordering on impertinence, "Of course, sometimes they eat deliberately."

When the first vintage was safely gathered in, the bal des vendangeurs ensued. Trestle tables were laid out in the courtyard, and on this occasion the effects of alcohol were more readily apparent. Two fiddlers and a squeezebox goaded the heavy-kneed vintagers into some dancing which, even so, displayed a grace and energy way beyond those of the most teetotal turnip-farmer. There being insufficient women present, Florence enquired of M. Lambert as to the propriety of his partnering the chateau's new owner. The homme d'affaires pronounced the suggestion an honour, but felt, if he was being invited to offer guidance to Madame, that others in the same situation would choose to watch from the head of the table. Florence therefore tapped her foot in irritated resignation as slight and wiry Frenchmen slung around women who for the most part were taller, plumper and older. After an hour or so, M. Lambert clapped his hands, and the youngest vendangeuse shyly brought Florence and Emily each a bunch of heliotropes. Emily delivered a short speech of thanks and congratulations, whereupon the two women retired to bed, listening through their open window to the whirl and stamp from the courtyard, to the scratch of the fiddles and the indefatigable jauntiness of the squeezebox.

Emily became, to Florence's indulgent dismay, even more learned in viticulture than in church architecture. The matter was the more confusing since Emily rarely knew the correct English word for the terms she was employing. Sitting in a cane chair on the terrace with the sun glistening the loose hair at the nape of her neck, she would lecture Florence on the parasitical enemies and cryptogamic maladies of the vine. Altise, Florence heard, and rhynchite; cochinelle, grisette, erinose; there were monstrous beasts called l'ephippigere de Beziers and le vespere de Xatart; then there was le mildiou and le black-rot (those at least she understood), l'anthracnose and le rot blanc. Emily saw these disasters in coloured illustration as she spoke: shredded leaves, noxious spottings and wounded branches filled her spectacles. Florence tried to show the proper concern.

"What is a cryptogamic malady?" she asked dutifully.

"Cryptogamia, according to Linnaeus, comprise those plants which have no stamens or pistils, and therefore no flowers, such as mosses, algae, funghi. Mosses and lichens too. From the Greek, meaning concealed wedlock."

"Cryptogamia," Florence repeated like a pupil.

"It is Linnaeus's last class of plants," Emily added. She was now at the extremity of her knowledge, but pleased that Florence seemed for once to be following her there.

"Last, but I am sure not least."

"I do not know if the categories imply moral judgment."

"Oh, I am sure not," Florence asserted firmly, though she was no botanist. "But how sad that some of our enemies are cryptogamic," she added.

Emily's discussion of these selfsame maladies with M. Lambert was more complete but less satisfactory. It seemed evident to her that the researches of L'cole Nationale d'Agriculture at Montpellier were convincing, and that the ravages of phylloxera should be repaired with vines grafted upon American rootstocks. Professor Millardet of Bordeaux agreed, even if there had been lively differences of opinion in the viticultural press.

To M. Lambert the matter was not at all so evident; indeed, quite the contrary. He reminded Mme Emily, who was a recent arrival in the Medoc, that the European vine, for all its many variations, consisted of but a single species, vinis vitifera, whereas the American vine comprised nearly two dozen different species. The European vine had existed in a state of almost perfect health for more than two millennia, and the maladies now afflicting it were entirely due, as had been proved beyond the least doubt, to the introduction of the American vines into France. Thus, he continued - and at this juncture Emily began to suspect that they had read the same volume - thus, there had been the appearance of oidium in 1845, of phylloxera in 1867, of mildew in 1879, and of black-rot in 1884. Whatever professors in universities might believe, his colleagues in the vineyards had the opinion that you did not, when confronted by a disease, cure it by importing its cause. To put matters as plainly as possible, if you had a child with pneumonia, you did not seek to cure it by putting into its bed another child already suffering from influenza.

When Emily pressed the argument for grafting, M. Lambert's face tightened, and he banged his felt cap against his thigh. "Vous avez dit que vous n'etiez pas Americaniste," he said plainly, as if forcing an end to the discussion.

Only now, with her studies behind her, did Emily appreciate the question she had been asked on their second tour of inspection. The world here divided into sulfureurs and Americanistes: those for whom salvation from phylloxera lay in rescuing and restoring pure French vines by chemical treatment, and those who wished to turn the vineyards into some new California. Her earlier reply to M. Lambert had unwittingly confirmed to him that she was a sulfureur, or rather, as he now put it, with what might have been either linguistic correctness or light sarcasm, a sulfureuse. If she was now telling him that she had changed her mind and was an Americaniste after all, then he and M. Collet, grateful though they were to Mme Florence and Mme Emily, would feel, to say the least, deceived.

"Who are we to say?" was Florence's response when Emily explained the dilemma.

"Well, we - you - are the owner. And I have been reading the very latest viticultural press."

"My father never knew how the saw-mill worked."

"Even so, the legs of his desks did not, I trust, fall off."

"Dear Emily," said Florence, "you do worry so." She smiled, then gave an indulgent chuckle. "And I shall think of you from now on as my sulfureuse. Yellow has always suited you." She chuckled again. The matter, Emily realised, had been both avoided and concluded by Florence: such was often her way.

What Florence called "worrying" was to Emily a proper concern for husbandry. She proposed extending the estate by planting the lower meadows close to the river; but was told they were too saturated. She replied that they should import bog-draining fen-men from East Anglia - indeed, she knew just which trenchers to appoint; but was told that even were the slopes to be drained, the subsoil was inhospitable to vines. Next she proposed the use of English horses to work the vineyard in place of oxen. M. Lambert took her into the estate and they waited at the end of a row of petit verdot as a pair of harnessed oxen, their heads cowled like nuns against the flies, progressed towards them. "Look," he said, his eyes shining, "look how they pick up and put down their feet. Is it not as graceful as any minuet that has been danced in the ballrooms of Europe?" Emily responded with praise of the strength, docility and intelligence of English horses; and in this matter she had the bump of perseverance. A few months later a pair of sturdy, feather-footed shires arrived at Haut Railly. They were stabled, rested and praised. What went wrong thereafter she never quite discovered: were the horses too clumsy-footed, or the workers too little skilled at directing them? Whichever the case, the shires were soon living out a peaceful early retirement on the unplanted lower meadows of the estate, the frequent aim of pointed fingers from the Pauillac steamer.

This ferry, when not over-burdened, could sometimes be persuaded to put in at the chateau's bright new stone pier. Such piers, Emily discovered, were locally called ports. They were so named, she naturally deduced, because their intended function was not as a tying-up place for pleasure- craft, but as an embarkation point for goods: specifically and obviously, the estate's wine must in the past have been sent to Bordeaux for bottling by the direct water-route rather than being hauled overland. She therefore instructed M. Lambert to move the next vintage by this method, and he seemingly accepted the order. But a week later Florence informed her that the housekeeper had offered her resignation amid spectacular tears, because if Madame did not wish to employ her brother the haulier then she herself was unable to work for Madame, since her brother was a widower with many children, and reliant for their bread upon the haulage contract from the chateau. Florence had of course replied that they had known none of this, and Mme Merle was not to fret.

"Can the lazy fellow not turn to river haulage as well?" Emily asked rather snappishly.

"My dear, we did not come here to disturb their lives. We came for the tranquillity of our own."

Florence had adapted to the Medoc with a swift content that was close to indolence. For her the year now ran not from January to December, but from one harvest to the next. In November they cleared the vineyard and manured; in December they lightly ploughed as protection against winter frosts; on January 22nd, St Vincent's Day, they started to prune; in February and March they ploughed to open up the vines, and in April they planted. June saw the flowering, July the spraying and trimming; August contained the veraison, that annually miraculous passage of the grapes from green to purple; September and October brought the vendage. As Florence watched these events from the terrace, she was aware of constant disquiet over rain and hail, frost and drought; but country folk were universally possessed by weather, and she decided as proprietor to exempt herself from such anxieties. She preferred to concentrate on what she loved: the vines draping their octopus arms over the supporting wires; the slow creak and tinkle as the sandy oxen made their stately way through the vineyard; the winter smell of a fire constructed from prunings. On late-autumn mornings when the sun rose low, she would sit in her cane chair with a bowl of chocolate, and from her flattened angle of vision all the rusting colours intensified: flame, ochre, and pale burgundy. This is our hermitage, she thought.

Each year for her therefore ended on the moveable feast of the bal des vendangeurs. Mindful of M. Lambert's earlier strictures, Florence had in the summer of 1891 made several mysterious trips into Bordeaux. Their purpose became plain when she celebrated the second vintage of Chateau Haut Railly in resplendent evening dress: black barathea jacket and trousers, with white silk waistcoat underneath, all cut with an elegant eccentricity by a bemused French tailor. Emily wore the same yellow dress as the first year, and when the trestle-table feast was over, and the fiddles and squeezebox started up, les dames anglaises rose and danced to unfamiliar tunes of furious friskiness. Mme Florence threw Mme Emily around in passable imitation of the wiry, mustachioed vendangeurs, who for their part asserted the democracy of the dance-floor by defending their territory with shoulder and hip. At the end of an hour the two women found, in mid-dance, that everyone else had faded to the edge of their awareness, and they were the proprietors of empty space. When the music stopped, the other dancers applauded, M. Lambert drily clapped his hands, the youngest vendangeuse brought two bunches of heliotropes, Emily made her speech, which was not substantially different, except for an improved accent, from the previous year, and les dames anglaises retired to bed. Florence hung up her evening suit, which would not be taken down until the following year. In the dark, she yawned heavily and summoned up a final picture of Emily, half-blinded without her spectacles, being tossed and whirled about the courtyard in her yellow dress. "Goodnight, ma petite sulfureuse," she said with a sleepy chuckle.

The great crisis in the management of Chateau Haut Railly came in the summer of 1895. One morning Emily noticed the housekeeper's brother unloading barrels at the door of the chai. She watched the haulier without at first realising there was something inapposite about the way he heaved them from his cart and thudded them down on to the courtyard. Of course, it was obvious - it should have been immediately obvious - that the barrels were full.

When the haulier had departed she went to see the regisseur. "Monsieur Collet, I have always understood that we make wine here." The regisseur, a lanky, taciturn man, had fond respect for his employers, but knew that they preferred to approach any subject by an ironical or indirect route. He therefore smiled and waited for Mme Emily to arrive at the matter in hand.

"Come with me." She led the way out into the courtyard and stood before the evidence. A dozen small barrels, neatly stacked, bearing no obvious stamp of identification. "Where are they from?"

"The Rhone Valley. They should be, anyway." When Mme Emily failed to respond, he went on helpfully, "Of course, in the old days it was more difficult. My father had to bring Cahors down the Dordogne. Then they opened the railway from Sete to Bordeaux. That was a great advance."

"Monsieur Collet. Forgive me, my question is this: if we make wine here, why are we importing it?"

"Ah, I see. Pour le vinage."

Emily had not come across the term before. "Vinage?"

"To be added to our wine. To make it better."

"Is this ... is it ... legal?"

M. Collet shrugged. "In Paris people make laws. In the Medoc people make wine."

"Monsieur Collet, let me get this clear. You, who are in charge of making our wine, you adulterate Chateau Haut Railly with filth from the Rhone Valley? You do this without permission? You do this every year?"

The regisseur could see that more than factual explanation was being called for. It was always the younger Madame who caused the problems. She had, in his opinion, a capacity for hysteria. Whereas Mme Florence was much more calm. "Tradition is permission," he replied. From Mme Emily's face he could see that the hallowed words of his father were not working their trick. "No, Madame, not every year. Last year was a very poor vintage, as you know, so it is necessary. Otherwise no one will buy the wine. If it was a little better, we might be able to improve it with some of our own wine, a few barrels of the '93. That we call le coupage," he added apprehensively, unsure whether he was compounding or diminishing his supposed sin. "But last year was truly mediocre, so we need these helpful barrels ... pour le vinage."

He was unprepared for Mme Emily's next action. She ran to the store-house, returning with a mallet and chisel. A few moments later, a dozen holes had been made, and the lower part of Emily's dress was stained with a pungent, spicy red liquor of considerably greater vivacity than the 1894 Chateau Haut Railly stored a few dozen metres away.

M. Lambert, attracted by the mallet blows, ran from his office and attempted to calm Mme Emily by introducing an historical perspective to the situation. He told her about les vins d'aide, as they were called, and the preparation of wine for le gout anglais, as it was known in the Medoc, and how the wine that the English gentleman served at his dinner table was very rarely the same liquid that had left a particular estate a few months or years previously. He spoke of a Spanish brew called Benicarlo.

Emily's disbelief was like heat. "Monsieur Lambert, I do not understand you. In the past you have lectured me severely about the purity of the Medoc vineyards, about how French vines must not be adulterated with American rootstock. Yet you blithely throw barrels of ... of this into what those self-same vines produce."

"Madame Emily, let me put it like this." His manner became avuncular, almost clerical. "What is the best wine of the Medoc?"

"Chateau Latour."

"Of course. And do you know the verb hermitager?"

"No." Her vocabulary was certainly being broadened today.

"It means to put the wine of Hermitage, a wine of the Rhone as you perhaps know, into a red Bordeaux. To give it weight. To accentuate its virtues."

"They do this at Latour?"

"Perhaps it does not happen at the chateau itself. On the Chartrons, in London ... The negociant, the shipper, the bottler..." M. Lambert's hands sketched a conspiracy of necessary virtue. "In poor years it has to be done. It has always been done. Everyone knows."

"Do they do it there, next door, at Latour?" Emily pointed south, into the sun. "Do the owners do it? Do they have barrels delivered like this, in broad daylight?"

The homme d'affaires shrugged. "Perhaps not."

"Then we shall not do this here either. I forbid it. We forbid it."

On the terrace that evening, while her dress was still in the soak, Emily remained adamant. Florence at first tried to tease her into a good humour, expressing surprise that an enthusiast for transcendence should not wish her wines to enjoy this quality as well. But Emily was not to be humoured or flattered.

"Florence, you cannot say that you approve of this process. If the label of our wine proclaims it to be of a certain vintage, and it is in fact a mixture of two vintages, you cannot say that you approve?"

"No."

"And you must therefore approve even less when our bottles contain wine from hundreds of kilometres away, grown God knows where and by God knows whom?"

"Yes. But ..."

"But?"

"Even I, my dear Emily, have grasped that it is permitted to add sugar to our wine, and what is the name of that acid ... ?"

"Citric acid, yes, and tartaric acid, and tannins. I am not sentimental enough to imagine that the process is not in some ways one of manufacturing. It is an industrial as well as an agricultural process nowadays. What I cannot abide, Florence, is fraud. Fraud on those who buy our wine, who drink it."

"Surely people buy a wine because they know what taste it has. Or should have." Emily did not reply, and Florence pursued her thought. "An Englishman buys Chateau Latour with a certain expectation, does he not? So those who provide the taste he requires are merely giving him what he wants. "

"Florence, I did not expect to hear you taking the devil's position. I am perfectly serious about this matter. It seems to me of the utmost, the final importance."

"So I can see."

"Florence, we do not talk about such things, and I am happy that it should remain that way, but when we moved here, when we gave up the turnip-farmers, we did so, as I understand it, because we could not live pretendingly, shut up in all that cold formality, waiting for those four weeks of the year in which we might escape. We could not bear the fraud in our lives." Emily by now had a lively blush and a stern stillness to her posture. Florence had seen her like this before, when she had the bump of perseverance about a matter.

"Yes, my dear."

"You like to say that this is our hermitage. Well, so it is, but only if it is we who make the rules."

"Yes."

"Then we must not live pretendingly, or with fraud, or believe, as Monsieur Collet expressed it to me this morning, that `tradition is permission'. We must not live like that. We must believe in truth. We must not live pretendingly."

"You are perfectly right, my dear, and I love you for it."

For once, M. Lambert and M. Collet were quite unable to prevail upon either of the Mesdames. Normally they knew to intervene with Mme Florence once Mme Emily was safely out of the way. They would address her with pathos or pride, invoke local or national considerations, and appeal to what they regarded as her essential complacency. But this time Mme Florence proved as obdurate as Mme Emily. Arguments from necessity and from tradition, references to the implied authority of the great vineyards, were placed before her in vain. There was to be no vinage and no coupage. There were to be no secretive deliveries of anonymous barrels, and, for that matter, no consequent obfuscations in M. Lambert's account books. Florence feared another threat of resignation, though far less than she feared the possibility of Emily's censure. But the two men, after several days of sulking and some growled conversations which seemed to contain more patois than usual, agreed that what had been ordered would be done.

The decade continued. The 1890s were kindlier years in the Medoc than the 1880s, and the last years of the century brought no sense of ending. Florence would reflect that their glass as yet contained no lees. They had settled comfortably into middle age, perhaps she more comfortably than Emily; and they had no regrets for England. Their stewardship of Chateau Haut Railly grew lighter. The replanting of the vineyard with ungrafted stock was complete; the oxen danced their minuets, the vendangeurs went through their ruffianly rituals. The old cure retired, but his successor respected the ancestral duties: tea in November, benediction of the vines in April. Florence took to tapestry work, Emily to pickling; they frequented the Bordeaux steamer more rarely. Les dames anglaises had ceased to be a novelty, or even an eccentricity; they had become a fixture.

Emily would sometimes reflect on how little impact they had truly made upon the estate; how little transcendence had occurred. They had brought money, to be sure, but this had merely allowed the vineyard to reassert itself, the better to take its chance against parasitical enemies and cryptogamic maladies. And at times like this, when she felt that personal will was less significant than philosophers claimed, she liked to think of human life as following its own viticultural cycle. Childhood was full of frosts and pruning, of wrist-cracking labour at the plough: it was hard to imagine that the weather would ever change. But it did, and June brought the flowering. Flowers led to fruit, and with August came the veraison, that miraculous colour-turn, the sign and promise of maturity. She and Florence had now reached the August in their lives. She shuddered to admit how much their maturity had depended upon the fortunes of the weather! She had known many who never recovered from the savagery of early frosts; others fell to mildew, rot, disease; others again to hail, rain, drought. They - she and Florence - had been lucky with their weather. That was all there was to say. And there the analogy ended, she thought. They may be now in their maturity, but there was no wine to be pressed from their lives. Emily believed in transcendence, but not in the soul. This was their patch of land, their patch of life. Then, at some point, the oxen came, dancing an unfamiliar dance, with the blade behind them cutting more deeply into the soil.

On the last evening of the century, as midnight approached, Florence and Emily sat alone on the terrace at Chateau Haut Railly. Even the familiar silhouette of the two elderly shires down in the lower meadows was missing. The horses had grown fat and nervous lately, and had been stabled close this night in case the fireworks alarmed them. Les dames anglaises had naturally been invited to attend the festivities in Pauillac, but had declined. There were times when the world shifted and you needed public comfort. But there were also great instants better savoured in private. Not for them tonight the official speeches, the municipal ball, the first purple-tongued riot of the new century.

Wrapped in rugs, they gazed down towards the Gironde, which was occasionally illuminated by a premature rocket. A shuddery but more reliable light came from the storm lantern set on the table between them. Emily could see that the balusters they had renewed a decade earlier had now quite blended in with the old ones: she could not now recognise, or remember, which was which.

Florence refilled their glasses with the 1898 vintage. It had been a small crop, reduced by lack of rain after a dry summer. The 1899, currently brooding in the chai, was known already to be magnificent, a grand finale to the century. But the 1898 had its virtues: a pretty robe, ample fruit, a proper length. Whether all these virtues were entirely its own was another matter. Florence, though essentially complacent, could not help being intrigued by the idea that their wine appeared to acquire a certain additional solidity between its journey in cask to Bordeaux and its return thence in bottle. Once, with a cheerful recklessness, she had ventured this notion to Emily, who had sharply replied that all good wine put on weight in the bottle. Florence had acquiesced in this declaration, and sworn to herself that she would never go near the subject again.

"You can be proud of this vintage," she said.

"We can both be proud."

"Then I give you a toast. To Chateau Haut Railly."

"To Chateau Haut Railly."

They drank, and walked to the front of the terrace, adjusting their rugs. They placed their glasses on the balustrade. The English grandfather-clock struck twelve, and the first fireworks of the new century climbed into the sky. Florence and Emily played at trying to guess their firing-points. Chateau Latour, obviously, that ruby explosion close at hand. Chateau Haut Brion, the browny-gold susurrus in the distance. Chateau Lafite, the elegant pattern to the north. Between the scatterings of light and the unfearsome crackles, they proposed a series of toasts. They turned towards England and drank; towards Paris; towards Bordeaux. Then they faced one another on the silent terrace with the storm lantern tickling their skirts and toasted the new century. A last, misguided rocket flew low across the water and exploded above their little port. Arm in arm, they walked towards the house, leaving their undrained glasses on the balustrade, and the lantern to burn itself out at some untenanted hour. Florence hummed a waltz, and they skittishly danced the last few yards to the French windows.

In the hallway, under the burner at the foot of the stairs, Florence said, "Let me see your tongue." Emily rather delicately extruded a centimetre and a half. "Just as I thought," said Florence. "Stealing the grapes. Every year the same disobedience, ma petite sulfureuse." Emily dropped her head in mock contrition. Florence tut-tutted, and turned down the light.

! This story is from Julian Barnes's new collection `Cross Channel', published by Jonathan Cape on 18 January at pounds 13.99.

To order `Cross Channel' at a reduced price of pounds 11.99 please ring 01279 42703 (credit cards), or write to Murlyn Services (cheques payable to Murlyn Services) P O Box 50, Harlow, Essex CM17 0DZ. A special leather- bound limited edition of 50 copies, numbered and signed by the author, is available at pounds 100 (while stocks last).

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