Three Lands on Three Wheels
a revised and edited version,2012
My second favourite of the Gordon books, purely because it concerns my other two loves, motorcycles and France. One chapter contains one of the best descriptions of the allure of riding one.
In 1987 on my own pre war motorcycle I followed the route of the 'Wandering Wardrobe' and had my own adventures. I was lucky in that much of the route and the places described in the book still existed almost unchanged.
But to enhance the reading of this edited edition I have added period photos of the places they mention in each chapter., hopefully if I have set things up right they will enlarge if you click on them.
The text of the book has been heavily edited to omit some passages which for todays reader might be difficult to relate to, the true Gordon fan will seek out the original book, but who knows, this version might be available as a print on demand version soon.
BUYING A ' MOTO ' IN PARIS circa 1930
We were now the possessors of a motor-bicycle. Indeed, we had owned this implement of travel for over a year, although during the winter it had been scattered in pieces about the cellar of a moto shop. There, in the subterranean depths, safe hidden from the prying eyes of a policeman, was an illicit German mechanic who had no permit de travail. Still, he did his work cheaply and well, and we could only sympathize with this adventurer: he was risking his liberty to grab even so small a share of the superior prosperity of France.
The original notion of touring on a motor-bike was not ours. Once we had tried a car, in America, but found it unsatisfactory. Hurried along in a box, we had felt too separated off from the country. In Europe the arrival of travellers in a car has the effect of putting up prices and shutting up humanities, but a motor-bike is essentially a democratic instrument. In America we had been able to travel with the democracy of the tin-Lizzie, but in Europe no such democracy has as yet been evolved.
The first suggestion made was that we should each buy a velo-moto, an apparatus that is between what in France is yet called the velocipede and a real motor-bike. It is an instrument of one horse-power limited to twenty miles an hour. Every morning in Paris one can see a rush of workmen speeding on their velo-motos to workshop or factory. These machines make a light and busy clatter, reminding us irresistibly of runaway sewing-machines, Singers that have cast their bonnets over the mechanical windmills.
The suggestion of buying velo-motos we had passed on to our friend “the Expert.” He spurned it.
Once the Expert had been a holder of English motorcycle records at Brooklands, but now, retired from active competition, he was taking his ease, with a bride and a bulldog pup, on a converted lifeboat-yacht moored in the Seine by the shaded banks of the Bois de Boulogne. Here fiscally he enjoyed an ideal situation. Like Kipling's Tomlinson he was neither in Heaven nor Hell—otherwise taxable neither in England nor in France. Drawing his income from Australia, he was freed from the English tax-collector, and as he lived on a yacht registered at Dover he was not claimably in France. The Port de Longchamps, a mooring-place along the tow-path, demanded no harbour dues. Thus he lived rent- and tax-free,, and still untroubled by the Australian financial clouds which were later to loom over his floating paradise.
The Expert dismissed the runaway sewing-machine type of locomotion with contempt. How could a man who had broken and maintained records condescend to a mere twenty miles an hour?
“Five horse-power and a strong side-car,” he insisted.
He did look at a three-and-a-half-horse recommended by our concierge. It belonged to the nephew of a friend of her sister-in-law. The owner wished to disembarrass himself of it immediately. It was almost new—had been ridden only once, indeed. The owner, having placed his wife and baby in the side-car, had set off at such a speed, and had spun a corner so vertiginously, that he had overset, and had tossed the whole family over his head into a ditch, escaping luckily with no casualties other than a smashed wind-shield and a slightly damaged baby. His wife had at once taken a dislike to this mode of conveyance. All his dreams of a delightful summer spent in exploring the country of the Ile-de-France had been knocked on the head—on the baby's head.
But he was confronted with a problem. He, a Frenchman, had saved up his fifty pounds for this apparatus, resplendent in black and vermilion lacquer and nickel-plate. Dimly he realized three things: first, the machine, with only one outing, had automatically become second-hand, thus losing a third of its value; secondly, an accident had further diminished its worth; and, thirdly, that the season of new models was coming closer every day—in fact, every moment that he kept the machine robbed it of yet more value. But even though he knew these things as facts of inexorable commerce he could not bring himself to believe them. His French soul could not accept the fact that some twenty-five pounds had vanished in one unlucky toss that had not done three pounds' worth of material damage.
Stretched on the rack of necessity, he was a distressing object-lesson. At last he could not bring himself to cut his losses. We do not know whether he ever persuaded his wife to ride once more in the apparatus, which from the prevalence of accidents similar to his had gained the sobriquet of' the easy divorce.'
Then began a search of the Parisian second-hand moto dealers. They were hidden away in strange corners of Paris near the fortifications. The “King of Motos” had a barn of a place in the wilds of the twentieth arrondissement; the "Palace of Novelties” clung to the slopes of Montmartre; “All for the Motos” lurked near the Bastille; the “Hall of Motos” was near the eastern corner of the Bois. From one to the other we plodded, learning much of motos by the way, but finding few that satisfied the Expert's investigation.
One day, on a solitary reconnaissance, having emerged from yet another fishy- looking dealer's shanty, I was accosted by a young man whom I at once judged to be of North African lineage.
“Excuse me,” said this ex-son of the desert, speaking a thickish sort of lingo, " what would really suit you is a Morgan. I have one. Cheap."
The only Morgan I could think of at the moment was a dead-and-gone pirate, and, although this fellow might well have been one of his crew, it didn't make immediate sense. Still slightly puzzled I followed him round the corner to a garage, from which he presently emerged sitting in an apparatus like an upturned zinc bath on three wheels. It had also the appearance of having suffered some monstrous hara-kiri, with all its mechanical viscera protruding in front. I would have protested, but with Arabic volubility he thrust me down into the spare seat. Feeling that a short trial run round a few blocks would after all waste less energy than an attempt to stem his eloquence, I submitted.
“Tres sport!” shouted my unexpected conductor, slipping from one gear to another. “She can do a hundred an hour easily."
Stepping on the accelerator with all the recklessness of one whose ancestors handled the long rifle in Arab razzias, he dashed into the traffic and steered for the open country.
“All right, all right!” I shouted at him. “I’ve seen enough,” hoping thereby he would think that I meant ' enough to purchase,' and so take me back to the garage to bargain.
But as an aphorist in the Moto-Revue says pertinently: "Prudence invented the brake, pride the accelerator."
“Not at all!” he shouted back. “You haven't half seen her go yet.”
We tore through the banlieue, sometimes on two wheels. I have ridden with Albanian gipsy drivers round hairpin bends in the mountains of the Malakastra, but nothing equalled that experimental drive with this African through the Parisian traffic. Our aphorist says: “A fool will always find another fool who wants to pass him." The African was of the second order. Thirsting to advertise the capacities of his battered bath-tub of a machine, eager to exhibit its capacities of control, he dashed into seemingly impossible crevices in the traffic; he cut in under the noses of the buses, and apparently tried to crawl under the lorries head first.
“I do seventy miles a day before breakfast to give me a fillip for work!" he yelled, taking his hands from the steering-wheel to gesticulate.
Arriving at last in a more open place, he let her all out. Beneath us the old machine buckled, throbbed, and bumped; the roadside trees seemed to flash by like the stakes of a paling. The wild Arab bared his teeth to the winds and laughed with the glee of the movement.
“Enough, enough!" I shouted. “I have no time to waste”
At last he slowed down and turned on me with a grin of pride. "Fast, hey?” he said.
“Oh, very fast,” I answered.
“And have you seen such control?”
“Marvellous!” I admitted.
"And you buy, hey?”
"As to that,” I temporized, “I must consult with my wife. And would you mind driving back a little more slowly? My heart is not very strong, compris? "
I felt no shame in temporizing with the fellow. Had he not swept me some six or seven miles into the country willy-nilly? If I had refused then and there he might have dumped me callously by the roadside to find my way back as best I could. One simply doesn't know with Arabs.
When I told the adventure to Jo she commented, "Goodness! And if you'd got yourself killed out there by the crazy idiot how would I, your bewildered relict, ever have been able to make out the mystery—you found dead ten miles out in the country with the remains of an old cycle-car and a squashed Arab ? "
The proprietor of our usual restaurant came to our help.
“The cousin of my brother's wife has just opened a shop for motos. I'll give you a special word to him."
The cousin of the restaurant-keeper's brother's wife (you see that the grammar-books aren't as foolish as we used to suppose)—well, then, the restaurant-keeper's brother's wife's cousin's shop was not a second-hand affair at all, but one filled with scarlet machines which, being of French make, were reasonable in price.
The Expert approved: "A new bike should give you no trouble for at least a year anyhow."
We decided on a test.
The assistant kicked the starter. At once the air was hideous with a series of crackling detonations like those of a machine-gun.
“Stop, stop! “ cried Jo, stopping her ears. “We couldn't possibly ride a machine as noisy as that.”
The restaurant-keeper's brother's wife's cousin shrugged his shoulders regretfully as he looked at the rejected moto.
“That is how they are building them,” he said. “You must realize, m'sieur-dame, that these are specially made to please les jeunes gens. A young man will never be satisfied with a quiet machine. He likes to be noticed as he goes by, compris?”
"An allegory," I murmured, as we left the shop. “Youth must contrive to be remarkable somehow, even if only by the noise and smell that it leaves behind it”.
In the end we bought a second-hand British machine, which the dealer let us have for five hundred francs cheaper than the listed price because he was going to be married in a week.
“It is not business," he said, " but, you understand, before one's wedding one feels like that."
Our purchase was not received with enthusiasm in the green-bowered alley of studios where we lived. The semi-tragedy of the concierge's sister-in-law's friend's nephew's battered baby had naturally been widely discussed. General opinion seemed to be that we had joined a suicide club. Our death-warrants were sealed. The neighbouring sculptor's pretty little daughter stared earnestly into Jo's face with her sloe-black eyes and sighed: “And you were such nice people."
True they didn't know that Jo would not be riding alongside in the ' wife-killer.' That was only for luggage. She was to take her place on the pillion seat, in what I claimed to be the ideal situation for a married woman: “Behind but slightly above her husband."
Our side-car was only a makeshift. It was a piece of ironwork that had rusted for many years among the debris of the agent's store, and he added it for the modest sum of an extra pound. It was only a skeleton, and on its empty springs we placed a long box, some five feet by two and a half feet square, which, painted a natty green, gave us what we hoped was an air as respectable as that of any baker's boy with his moto delivery-van.
The sculptor, father of the child who had uttered our epitaph, cast an eye on our apparatus and exclaimed: "Mais, voyons, c'est une veritable armoire ambulante !
"Translated into English it became thus “The Wandering Wardrobe."
A SERMON IN STRAWBERRIES
Valence en Brie
The events recorded in the last chapter were now a year behind us. Since then we had made a tour through Germany, that distressed country staggering under a double burden of a coming world-crisis and the experiments of amateur politicians. After that trip the machine went into winter quarters and was picked to pieces, as we have told, by the troglodytic German mechanic, but at last it stood once more in front of our studio, loaded up for a five months' trip...
We had planned to leave at seven o'clock, but the actual time was nearer nine, for Jo has a White Knightish temperament. At the ultimate moment she is always spotting some new oddment which " might come in useful some day," and she, who would rather die than overload a horse, has little ruth in overloading a machine. Steel has no feelings.
It is easy to get things out of proportion. What after all was a mere delay of two hours and a half at the outset of a five months' trip? One twelve-hundredth part at the most. But it rankled in me. I had set that seven o'clock as a kind of test. “This time," I had said . . .
The immediate consequence was that we had to face the full morning traffic pouring into Paris. Parisian traffic may be a thing to admire from the terrasse of a cafe, whence it is a thing of fearful delight, a circus for which one pays no entrance fee. But as a test of an inexperienced driver's nerve it is trying, especially if you are one of the smaller ingredients of the hurly-burly. The tale is told that once six French policemen were sent to London to study the English methods of traffic control. They were returned duly certified to Paris and put on the streets. Only two survived the first spell of duty. And I can assure you that, mounted on a motor-bicycle, with a side-car overloaded with luggage and your wife on a pillion behind, you see the Parisian traffic with something of those policemen's eyes.
We had planned that seven-o'clock start in order to slip out ahead of this circus, whereas we had now flung ourselves full into the middle of it, steering our odd-looking armoire ambulante through a torrent of buses, lorries, oil-wagons, trams, taxi-cabs, and Citroens which seemed to hurtle forward as heedlessly as logs shooting a rapid.
Nevertheless one is always surprised at the suddenness with which Paris seems to lose grip of the surrounding country. That dismal tailing off into circles of increasingly degenerating suburbia which characterizes so many a large town hardly exists here. Paris, hemmed in by the fiction of its fortifications, grew upward into tall storeys and attics, and has but recently begun to spread its elbows. So that you step off almost at once into the countryside of the Ile-de-France, and within a few kilometres of the capital may find pleasant hamlets.
Still Paris does continue its influence underfoot for a considerable distance, and though the houses may disappear the pave remains with you, A few decades ago livery gentlemen who could not afford the delights of Rotten Row had to content themselves with a domestic apparatus called a horse-exerciser, which joggled their livers into a condition for lunch. They should have tried the motor-bike over the pave. It is not merely a rhythm of bumps and crashes, but a fugue, since besides the waves and holes, into which the motor traffic has degenerated a road surface not designed for such stresses, there is the continuous obbligato of the separate stones. On your high-powered car you may sail easily enough over such minor obstacles, protected as you are by your springs and shock-absorbers, but the motor-bicycle is uncushioned. Between your knees you clasp several hundredweights of eager, living steel, and seldom do you forget the fact. However, we had this advantage over the car-owners: that far better even than the horse-exerciser is the motor-bike for liver stimulation.
Paris had been stuffy; in consequence we had been picking at our provender in too dainty a fashion. But on that June morning, after a few hours over the paves of the Ile-de-France, we felt hunger and health swing back to us before ever the clocks were striking eleven.
To stop now was impossible. Twelve is the Frenchman's lunch hour.
"Certainly. At once, m'sieur-dame," they will assure you at any wayside inn, but you will gnaw only your own appetite until twelve, and, having thrown away so many good miles of road, you will have added thereto the annoyance of waiting for a period that might be better wasted later in the pleasures of the after-lunch relaxation.
At about ten-to-twelve we halted on a hill and considered Valence-en-Brie below us. It was a village pleasantly curly in both dimensions, horizontal and vertical.
"Is there, is there lunch in Valence?" we murmured, sliding down the first curly slope into the village. But it looked barren of promise, and the engine began to beat its way up the opposing slope with an empty-sounding chug. No sign of hostel rewarded our hungry eyes, till just at the top of the hill, past the final kink, was a small church and an open place. And here stood a wayside hotel.
There was a little terrasse facing the church, a few box-plants separating it from the place. There were no lunch announcements to catch the traveller, but somehow we smelt possibilities. Jo climbed rather stiffly from her pillion and went within to prospect. The maid stared at her with a visible amazement. “Lunch!” she almost gasped. " I cannot say, madame; I must first consult the cook."
“Strange," thought Jo to herself. “There is seemingly a cook, but there may be no lunch."
“The cook says," answered the maid, returning, " that you can have lunch if you wish.''
But she said it with a queer and hesitating kind of reluctance, as though the ceding of lunch were a personal favour and only under the pressure of our urgency. “Then we would like it on the terrasse" said Jo. But here the maid had her own objections. “Ah, no, madame," she said,” I cannot give you lunch on the terrasse"
"Why not?” demanded Jo.
“Voyez-vous, madame," said the girl, “I am but just come back from the market. Therefore I am not dressed for the terrasse."
She had just returned from the market, where she had been gossiping with all her village cronies. Even if she did serve us on the terrasse nobody would see her but these same cronies. But to your Frenchwoman her morning peignoir rand carpet slippers are as cloaks of invisibility. In the market she is invisible and correct; but on the cafe terrasse, ah! so visible and, oh ! so terribly incorrect.
Jo compromised. The cook should retard the meal for ten minutes, the maid could change into correctitude, and we, whose appetites were already yammering, would take appetisers.
As we sat thus piling appetitive Pelion on Ossa the host himself appeared. Or rather his presence allowed itself to be felt behind us on the step of the little hotel. He did not intrude, but merely waited ready to be addressed on the subject of wine if we were so disposed. He was a sergeant-majorish-looking chap, certainly not one who would have suggested a delicate appreciation of good things, a kind of natural Beefeater if you will. Uneasy for a moment, we tried the test question:
“What about the wine, patron?”
“There is no need to put yourselves to unnecessary expense unless you wish," he replied. “We have an excellent vin ordinaire that I can recommend."
He had passed with flying colours.
Perhaps nothing reveals the true quality of the French innkeeper more neatly than this question of his wine. If the fellow is a mere money-grubber in the purses of strangers he will at once produce the wine-card and suggest ' something ' vintage. I would not decry your vintage wines—far from it!—but everything in its place. Vintages are not for everyday casual drinking; they should be used on occasions when a proper homage can be paid. So, if your host is a man who has a sense of proportion superior to his desire of gain he will probably have a nice vin ordinaire selected by himself, and he would rather you drank his ordinaire, thus complimenting his taste, than that you should squander money on Chambertins or Chateaux La Tour. So, if your host recommends his vin ordinaire trust him. You will be right nine times out often.
Is there not the famous story of old Henri, at the Tour d'Argent, in Paris, turning out of his restaurant a tableful of foreign diners who had ordered in too wholesale a fashion? “Here," he had said, “one dines; one does not guzzle."
Behind our host's soldierly and massive form his wife appeared. A few words of casual conversation unveiled the secret of why the maid had been so astonished at our request for lunch.
“Voyez-vous, m sieur-dame, we are placed fortunately on the Great Road from Paris. This afternoon the cars will pour out in a veritable torrent. But they do not stop here, it is too near. Coming home, though, to-night, they will stop. Then we shall be packed, and equally for to-morrow, lunch and supper. And then for the rest of the week we can sit down and take our ease, enjoying the concerts on the radio."
Thus they lived prosperously on three meals a week. That this was quite enough practice to keep the cook's artistry up to scratch we can perhaps best describe by an illustration and an implication.
We will not trouble to praise the hors-d'œuvres, the fish, nor the canard aux petits pots. Already we had guessed that the fruit would be strawberries, since we had seen a most delightful old woman, accompanied by a winsome grandchild, bring to the door a big basket full of vermilion berries, that had been received with the courtesy due to something not merely merchandise.
To poor Jo, however, strawberries are forbidden fruit. The maid brought me a single portion. On a small white porcelain plate five strawberries were set in a pyramid. I have generally thought of strawberries in the collective sense. A peach, a pear, yes; but a strawberry, never. Here each strawberry had been raised to the dignity of an individual fruit; each one had been specially selected, had acquired a special value, and merited it. I took each lingeringly. Never have I tasted such strawberries; they were the climax of a most pleasant meal.
When I had finished the maid asked: “Don’t you want any more? I'll bring you a second helping."
“No," I answered, “those were just perfect."
“Then the cook was right after all," said the maid. “For I said to the cook, ' You can't give him only five strawberries, that's mean.' But the cook said, ' Five is just the number. If he wants more he can have them, but if he is as he ought to be he won't want any more.' "
The flavour of the compliment was even more grateful than that of the strawberries. But in return I would record those five strawberries as a testimony to that peculiar sense of taste inherently French. And have not those five strawberries an even wider significance? They stand in my mind as a monument to that power of restraint that is one of the foundations of true art and which is fast becoming a lost secret in this opulent world. They stand as a village cook's protest against the trend of the day. “Give me one man of Taste and I will give you ten men of Genius." To-day we have men of genius galore, but those of real taste are as hard to find as ever.
Jo and I have a family saying that our bad luck is often our good luck disguised. There are moments, we confess, when the adjustment of this maxim to circumstances is rather difficult, but on this occasion surely Time had revenged himself. For had we made that punctual start we would now have been many a mile beyond this fruitful inn, and thus would have missed both a perfect meal and a sermon in strawberries.
As we sipped our coffee we said to the maid: "Please bear our thanks and congratulations to the cook."
Do not think us prigs, but we would like to note this little formula of politeness. For the cook is no mere workman. Down in his heated studio he has been compounding delights for your pleasure. He is an artist who hears only too seldom the appreciation of the work so dear to his artistic nature. And he is an artist with this miserable lot— that none of his masterpieces can live after him. He is an artist of the ephemeral. True, like the musician, he can write down his compositions, but that is a poor satisfaction. So be kind to his artistic sensibilities, send him the thanks which will cost you nothing, and be glad to feel that on your journey a line of cooks will think that you were worth the feeding.
But our lunch was not to finish without a jarring note: the host turned on the radio, which crashed out the Bridal Chorus from Lohengrin.
“Splendid instrument—German of course! “shouted our host, through the music. “That piece is relayed through from a great American orchestra."
Doubtless the radio is raising the level of village musical taste, Wagner already being a favourite, although Beethoven is still a little too profound to win popular applause. In the present case the march came through with a peculiar and diamantine brilliance that drew from us the comment: “The wedding march of a divorcée, fourth or fifth husband we would think.
A FIREMANS FEAST AND A ‘CRIME PASSIONNEL’
Pont sur Yonne
In spite of temptations, we cling to our profession of Tavernists rather than that of Templars. The character in the ' pub ' is as worth recording as the antiquity in the church, but has this drawback, that you can borrow none of it from other writers or from Baedekers. Further, an artist who can paint his scenery has little desire to translate it into the medium, less satisfactory for that particular purpose, of prose. Only too conscious of the inadequacy of paint, he is doubly aware of the inability of words to reshape a visual image. Give thirty artists a most detailed description of a scene, and each will make of it a different picture. Scenic prose belongs properly to the department of poets; and as for ecclesiastical or historical padding, can anything be more tedious than the amateur antiquarian stewing shallow impressions with guide-book information and seasoning the whole with ' fine ' writing?
So here we refrain from trying to evoke the past of France. Besides, even at twenty miles an hour — we did not push the armoire ambulante to excessive speeds — you do not so much taste landscape as guzzle it. The scenery leaps at the eyes, and you are left almost bare of individual impressions. You have but a memory of essential landscape, due to superimposed images a little blurred, like those composite portraits of the perfect politician made by printing photographs of all the Cabinet one on top of t'other, or of the ideal doctor which fuse the full length of Harley Street into a shadowy whole. But of all European landscapes that of France is perhaps the most strikingly a reflection of its people. It is at once pastoral and mercantile — though not manufacturing ; it is rich with an undertone of meanness ; it is individual as a Frenchman is individual and formal as a Frenchman is formal ; it blends together the shrieking and grotesquely new with an aloof and lovely age. A picturesque but undecorated poverty lurks beside evidence of past magnificence or the blatant eyesores of the soul-fattened bourgeoisie. Yet even the frightful villas of these last, villas sprouting with balconies, turrets, and strange fretwork, have pushed ugliness almost over the edge into the pictorial grotesque, and do harmonize in an odd way with the trunks of tall trees, which, shorn of branches and denuded of greenery, stand lean and bare except for a tuft at the top, like the tails of gigantic poodle-dogs thrust up from the soil. And down all these green valleys the rivers have not been left to wander unctuously uncontrolled, but are canalized, and bear their burden of barges, bright with the housewives' flowerpots, and waving, like triumphant banners against depopulation, a long line of children's gay clothing.
In the flattening rays of the afternoon sun we came to Pont-sur-Yonne, and voted ourselves a drink. The quiet riverside hotel tempted us. A green arching bower and white tables were set in the cool shadow. Here three women sat stringing beans. By their elbows heaps of beans waited to be strung; at their feet a large cauldron was filling with the beans already deprived of their backbones and sternums.
“The people in this district then," we ventured,” are they so voracious of beans?" "
“But, no, m’sieur-dame" replied the oldest woman. “These are for the feast, quoi!”
"A feast of beans?"
“But, no, m’sieur-dame, a feast of pompiers. Five hundred firemen are to gather in the town to-morrow. Two hundred and fifty lunch here. There is an agricultural show, a fair, and a river-carnival. You arrive at the moment itself."
We loitered under the pleasant arbour, chatting with the bean-stringers. Perhaps one of the most delightful aspects of France is this, that domestic work carries no shame, and one need not conceal the operations of the kitchen as though they were secret and rather improper mysteries. Your housewife can pluck her fowl and gossip on the front doorstep itself, and she turns her weekly wash at the public lavoir into a mothers' meeting. The cosy kind of country hotel rarely severs the maid at work from all human intercourse. Peas shelled during a mild flirtation with some male client do not taste less sweet. Besides, the client passes his time more pleasantly.
The hostess was a genial woman who admitted that there were rooms to let.
"It is because la peche has not yet opened. After that date if you came here haphazard you would ask me in vain."
Jo inspected two rooms, both simple and comfortable: the front was four shillings the night, the back only three.
“Wouldn’t the back room be the quieter? “said Jo.
“Ah, if it is sleep you are looking for," said our hostess, “clearly the back room is preferable. You avoid the Paris road and the young men on noisy motor-bicycles."
We imagined one of those jeunes gens on a red-and-black monstrosity advertising his personality athwart the silence of the night, and we mentally thanked our hostess for her lack of cupidity.
The patron was a pleasant man with a congested face. He came from Paris, but said: "There one cannot breathe." His passage through the conventions of the capital was shown in a general prinking up of the place. The dining-room strove to be rustic by means of a wall-paper imitating raw bricks and oaken beams. Copper warming-pans hung in ranks, a decorative device almost as unlucky as the English aspidistra; imitation-old china plates alternated with incompetent oil-paintings. But this could be easily forgiven for the sake of the tasty meals served there.
So far the prospective firemen's feast had attracted no visitors other than a man and a girl, who sat at a near table. He, built in the mould of the everyday commercial traveller, would not have attracted our attention had it not been for his evident anxiety about his companion. She, dressed in a long chiffon frock of smart cut, was a slim girl with large moody eyes and protesting lips. Her string-soled espadrilles once had been clean, and her panama hat once had been both smart and clean. This backboneless, neglectful beauty awakened our attention, and led us to notice the odd, watchful anxiety of the man.
She was toying with her soup, and soon jumped up. Gliding to the window, she stared out into the Paris road, her pose marked with sullen discontent.
With the fish her man said gently: "Aren't you coming back to the table then?”
“I can't eat," she muttered; “food makes me feel sick."
That evening Pont-sur-Yonne was busily decorating itself. Each house was spreading out a stock of flags and fairy lamps, usually stored in the attics against the not infrequent occasions of their display. The cafes were building hasty pergolas of greenery across the pavements, or even right into the streets, refreshment taking precedence over rights-of-way. Near the station a green arch was already erected, its keystone a barrel of beer bearing the effigy of a fireman astride. By the riverside, between the buttresses of the old church and the wash-house barges floating in the stream, the fair had already got under way. The dreariest merry-go-round ever invented, a mere circular track, half open, half tunnel, to give the yokels a chance for the surreptitious embrace, was already blaring out its throaty tunes. The sweetmeat stalls were already whirling their brightly tinted lottery wheels; the freak shows, the wrestling booth, the wood-and-canvas cinema, the children's carrousel^ With strange saddle-beasts like the spilling of an old book on heraldry, all strove to look festive and enticing, although the promenade was almost empty of either town or country folk. Indeed, we marvelled at the spurious and continual air of gaiety that the fair folk could display to a monetary vacuum. Here too we found our fellow-diner. He had a stand of clocks and watches, the merits of which he was loudly explaining to an old tramp and two tiny children, while his dabby companion was flirting with the engineer of the cinema show. Above the mixed and mangled music of the braying calliopes in the various booths beat the pants and grunts of the petrol engines, which have by now displaced the huge and splendidly be-brassed steam machines of former days. One lollipop booth exhibited a large pig made in nougat of Montelimar. It was labelled— “1st prize. Colonial Exhibition."
“Oui madame," said the stallholder to Jo, "I have been offered two hundred and fifty francs for that pig, but it cost as much as that to make. The price is three hundred, not a franc less."
Who, we wondered, would spend all that on a nougat pig in a vagabond stall?
We stopped on the bridge and looked backward. The glare from the electric-lamps of the booths and the merry-go-round streamed up the walls of the old church and was reflected in the river. The twentieth century illuminated the seventeenth, and revealed pitilessly the towpath still empty of public, so that over all this mechanized merriment hung a pall of pathetic dreariness.
There was little dreariness, however, in the bar of our small hotel. French conviviality is inclusive. A plump, white-haired woman, ripe as a peach that has reddened against a Southern wall, held the bar, and retorted to chaff in a loud, thick voice, rich with humanity. They called her la Mere Julie. After a time the bar emptied, and turning to us, she bellowed:
“So, m'sieur-dame, you come from Paris and are painters. I lived in Paris too you must understand, and there I also knew a painter." She shook her head. “A strange fellow —drank like a pig. He had a big head and wobbly legs, a type, what, but talented, they say, though, Lord! we didn't think much of the stuff he turned out. He was called Toulouse Lautrec; ever heard of him, hey? "
“Toulouse Lautrec!” we cried. “But, madame, every painter knows of him. He has a large exhibition now at the Tuileries."
“So I have heard," grumbled la Mere Julie violently; " and his pictures are worth solid cash too, they say. Why, the good-for-nothing lived in the same house as I did! I tell you he was so incompetent I was plain sorry for him. I used to make him up little soups and things. And in return he used to give me his pictures. At one time I must have had twelve or fifteen of the things knocking about."
“And what did you do with them?” we asked eagerly.
“Peugh!” said la Mere Julie, “how should I know that there was any value in them? Why, I thought he was just an incompetent in everything. I lost them, that's a fact. And now they might be worth a little fortune, a ce qu'on dit."
She shrugged her shoulders. We tried to extract from her some souvenirs of Lautrec, but failed.
“Une espece de rien du tout. Pitiable, that's what he was. And now they are saying that he was a great painter. Well, I never thought that. And as for his pictures . . . they just went. I don't know. I never thought much of them."
From her tone it was evident that in spite of Lautrec's present fame her genuine opinion of him and of his work was hardly altered.
“And La Goulue, the girl who used to pose for him, you've heard of her too, I suppose?”
“Naturally," we said.
“There was a stupid fool if you like," she shouted. “The money that girl squandered in her time. Good God! I knew her too; in fact, I was the only one who followed her funeral. She drank even more than he did. Well, do you know how she finished up, she who had had all Paris at her command? Keeping a menagerie with two mangy lions and une espece d'imbecile d'ours. And that girl had millionaires kissing her feet. But all the same now she's got a tablet on her grave, and only because that poor little Lautrec painted her. Did you ever hear the like? Droll, hein? "
We had rather expected from the firemen's feast some kind of exhibition—firemanly exercises, firemen balanced against the clouds on tall ladders, the rescuing of dummies from blazing sheds, and a prodigious amount of pumping. It is true that there was a display of pumping, but only if we consider the term in the argot, pamper meaning ' to put it down.' The firemen, helmets and buttons twinkling brassily in the sun, having marched through and round the little town, distributed themselves among the various hotels, and began to feast. The garage of our hotel had been cleared and decorated with green boughs. La Mere Julie took her stand behind the bar, serving drinks of various degrees, from the cloudy Pernod, which imitates the forbidden absinthe, or its tinted derivative, la tomate, to the innocuous vermouth and black-currant. The happy pompiers pumped with a will, having the Latin faculty of growing extremely hilarious without being offensive.
Our hotel had the honour of all the pumping officers. In the imitation-antique dining-room they held gesticulative arguments about firemanly affairs while enjoying the excellent lunch. Although the kitchen accommodation of our hotel was designed to serve normally some twenty or thirty people we would never have guessed it. Our own meal came without hurry but without delays. Yet they were feeding some three hundred. Apart from the general high level of the everyday cuisine, this power of apparently limitless expansion at a minute's notice is one of the miracles of the French cook.
That afternoon the fair had a livelier aspect. Omnibuses were bringing the population of the countryside into the town. The dreary little merry-go-round was continually packed, and in the darkness of the tunnel Strephon squeezed his Chloe to the accompaniment of her squealed delight. The sweet stalls and the gambling booths were packed with their customers, although the prize pig had as yet attracted no village Croesus. The firemen, their steps a little out of time from the results of their pumping, marched once more round the town, and massed below the old town wall, where a speech tent had been set up. Here the pumping officers mounted a dais and clamoured for recruits.
Unluckily for him, in France the fireman has gathered an aroma of uncouth comedy. The average village fire-plant is in itself almost a grotesque affair, with its barrel on wheels and an often decaying hose. From analogy all uninspired and academic art, art that is pumped up at the word of command, has won the sobriquet of pompier. This feast had been designed to rehabilitate the village pumper and to rescue him oratorically from the smiling disdain into which he has fallen. How far it succeeded we do not know.
Outside the tent a few casualties, due to combined pumping and sun, were stretched out under the shady trees. One lad was in a pitiable condition. Stripped to the waist, he rolled and groaned on the grass, while his helpless comrades stood about in perplexity. Suddenly their circle was broken by the girl in dabby chiffon. She threw herself on her knees, and, gathering the half-denuded boy into her arms, began to stroke his forehead. At last a young doctor arrived, rescued the lad from this emotional treatment, and had him carried away on a stretcher.
Pont-sur-Yonne was en fete. The temporary green pergolas over the pavements were crowded. The afternoon was hot. We too sheltered in the shade for refreshment. Jo began to make rapid sketches of the country people massed on the benches round about. By my side an old man, his face a map of happy wrinkles, smiled at me, and almost at once began that easy biographical kind of conversation which the Frenchman loves.
“Would you credit, m'sieur, that I am eighty-five years old? I have no shame of my age, I can assure you. Hereabouts they all call me the doyen of the fishermen. Ah, m'sieur, what a sport--la peche—eh? For myself I concentrate on one branch only." He lowered his voice to give his announcement full value: “Eels, m'sieur. Ah! What fish!
“Yes, m'sieur, I have concentrated my leisure on eel-fishing. I have my daily paper, my pipe, my punt. A most pleasant distraction. One must also have the bait, naturally. I will reveal to you a good dodge for getting worms; it is this, water the ground with bleaching fluid. That stifles them, you understand. They must come up for air. But you must have a bucket of water handy, and sluice them at once; otherwise the eau de javelle eats them, compris? "
“And do you catch many eels?” I asked.
“Sapristi, one must not expect too many," said the old man. “It is not merely the catching of the eel that is the reward, but everything together—the quiet, the river, the minute in water. After that you cut it up and stew it in wine. Ah, m'sieur, what a dainty; fit for Vatel himself.
" I was a mechanician by trade, m'sieur, and a hard job I had becoming one, I assure you. When I was a child my father earned four francs a day, and there were twelve of us. While I alone have eight thousand francs a year pension. That's what comes of education, m'sieur. But this education I gave to myself, studying at night; four francs a day wasn't going to satisfy me, I assure you. I went into the railway works, and ended up as foreman of the shop. My son is a railwayman too, but it isn't the same now as it was in my time. To-day these machines aren't interesting. You turn on the steam, or the electricity, as the case may be, and they do their work. But in my days machines had a soul. Eigh! You had to understand them, to humour them. They had their moods. There were some drivers they didn't like, and for them they wouldn't work properly. Nowadays, pooh! there's nothing in it. There's no intellect needed, compris?
“I was in the war too. Not this one, of course, that of seventy. They made three regiments of us railwaymen. I was put in the third. The first and the second were wiped out. Hardly a man survived. That's luck, that is. I believe in luck."
“But the fact that you educated yourself wasn't luck," I said.
“Yes it was," he answered. “Wasn’t it lucky that I had that kind of a disposition? Because, voyez-vous, you can do nothing against your disposition, and that is luck; you can't pick that for yourself. Now take marriage, for instance. Isn't that luck also? I was lucky in my wife. Schoolmistress she was; I always respected education, moi. And we had good children too. My son has offered me an allowance, but I said: ' No, my son, I have enough to get along with; spend the money on the education of your children. Who knows, one will, with luck, become a doctor or a lawyer.' "
During his last words an Arab pedlar had been pestering us, waving in the air garish shawls and cerise braces. Now he drew from his pocket a pipe. It was shaped like a revolver, with the bowl in the handle. The old man fixed it with his eye.
“Twenty francs," said the man, thrusting it on him. “If I sold it for a centime less I'd lose my money." The doyen of fishermen turned it about. Clearly the idea
of smoking a revolver-pipe while reading his paper and waiting for the fortnightly eel attracted him. “I’ll give you eight francs," he said at last. “Done!” said the Sidi; “it’s yours, Grandfather." For a third time the pompiers marched round the town. As I was skirmishing beside them trying to get a photo one of the men
suddenly seized Jo by the elbow and dragged her into the ranks. The thing was done with a gay bonhomie.So arm in arm with the grinning pompier Jo marched to the fire station, and on her departure the troop lifted their helmets and cried "Vive l'Angleterre!".
We stayed another day in Pont-sur-Yonne while I sketched the Old church and the river
At the minute agricultural show our fellow-guest was now selling unbreakable fountain-pens, which he stabbed into a board, afterward writing his signature with the same implement, while on the grass the chiffon girl flopped, reading a cheap romance. The fact that these two could lodge at the hotel, paying some six shillings a day pension, as well as keep a car to facilitate their business, led us to reflect. . . . The profits to be drawn from peddling shoddy clocks and lethal fountain-pens at village fairs were possibly superior to the earnings of many a well-known artist.
That night after I had climbed into bed Jo was still undressing in a leisurely way. A voice, almost at our chamber blinds, exclaimed: "Madame, madame!”
Little thinking that the appeal was directed to her, Jo continued to undress, and had indeed reached the last stages when the voice called out once more: "Madame, madame! I can see your shadow on the blind. Be so good. Please come and make him let me out."
"Wow!” cried Jo, thinking more at the moment of her shadow than of the strange appeal. She slipped on her coat as the tragic voice called out insistently: "Madame, it is to you I am calling. I implore you come quickly and release me. He has locked me in."
Jo pulled aside the treacherous blind. Our room was within a corner, and there, just across the angle, was the fountain-pen seller's girl leaning from the window. Behind her the man also leaned, in what seemed a companionable way, as though contemplating with her the beauty of the moonlight. But the woman sobbed: "Madame, it is to you I am appealing, as one woman to another. I must leave him at once. He has locked me in. He ill-treats me."
The man looked over her shoulder with a strange serenity. The apparent calmness of the pair, and the lack of any sign of struggle, or indeed of discord, puzzled Jo. She had the odd sensation of being shut off by a barrier of the unexpected. What could she do but temporize?
"Mais, madame," she expostulated, "what do you mean? Go away? It's the middle of the night. Surely you will wait till to-morrow—it's so chilly out of doors."
“Yes, that's the idea," said the man in a soothing voice. “Much better wait till to-morrow."
“Ah, no, impossible! “cried the girl. “I would not stay another second, but he has locked the door. Madame, come and make him release me at once. He is ill-treating me. He's scratched my arm."
She flourished a long, bare arm.
“Of course," cried Jo, “I’ll do anything I can. Shall I fetch the proprietress? "
"Ah Madame I would thank you eternally,” cried the girl. “She’ll see that the door is opened and that justice is done to me."
Jo ran down to the bar. Here the fair people were squandering their gains, toasting one another and singing jolly choruses in voices thickened by much shouting. The proprietress smiled at Jo, and, in answer to her urgent beckoning, sent the maid to find out what she wanted. The maid returned and whispered in her ear. The smiles vanished as though turned off at the main.
“Swine," murmured the hostess, and led the way upstairs.
Meanwhile I had remained in bed, listening to the growing din in the next room. I began to think that before Jo could get the patronne murder might be done next door, and I was reasoning out the situation. Owing to an unsound heart the doctor had warned me against any too strenuous efforts with the arms. To start a struggle with the burly pedlar would be unwise. I had no wish to make Jo a widow on account of an hysterical show-girl and her bullying lover. Distinctly a case of "What should Mr A do?" However, a long screech from the next room made me jump from bed. There were limits. But before I could get into action a loud banging at the door cut off the squabble and affected a silence, through which the landlady's voice sounded shrill and insistent.
The door swung open. The patronne and Jo looked within. The man was in his shirt-sleeves; the girl, in her petticoat-bodice, brandished the chiffon dress like a flag of liberty.
“Madame," she cried, " you will be so good as to compel that man to let me go. He has locked me in and has been ill-treating me."
She pointed to the scratch on her arm, and, turning her face to the light, showed a bruised eye.
“As for the scratch," protested the man, “you know well it was an accident."
“And for the black eye? “cried the girl. “In my circle they don't beat women."
“Ah, mon Dieu, who wouldn't be exasperated at the way she goes on," shouted the man. “Nothing is good enough for her. She grumbles and plays the hysterics till one is driven mad. And while I work for her she reads trash. ..."
"And wouldn't I work too if you'd only let me? " cried the girl. "Here I am—a beautiful young woman. I was going to get a start in the cinema when he took me away. He drags me about, stopping me from fulfilling my destiny as a cinema star. I want to go home. . . . Now. . . ."
“La, la!” said the hostess. “What is all this song about work? Don't I work too? It's nothing to be proud of."
“And a nice head your father would make, to see you turning up in the middle of the night," sneered the man.
“Don’t you sneer at my father. He's a fine man, and not a sale type like you," snapped the girl.
" A fine man he is," growled the man; " and how many bottles of my good champagne did he get down his gullet while I was courting you, madame, and he knowing all the time I was a married man ? He's beaten you often enough himself, I'll be bound. . . ."
In spite of the almost irreconcilable appearance of the quarrel, under the cool and insistent urging of the hostess the two began to calm. Jo came back, and through the window we listened to the fading arguments. Nobody suggested that the girl should move to another room for the night. At last a truce was drawn. The man promised not to lock the door and not to beat her again that night. She swore she would return home next day. Silence fell, broken only by the distant bellowings of the topers in the bar.
But early next morning the argument began again.
The man was clearly the victim of one of those strange infatuations which play so large a part in French literature. In spite of the girl's evident worthlessness he hated to let her go, and she, as the price of capitulation, was demanding that he should live in Paris.
“But how can I? “he cried again and again. “I have our living to earn. I am not a shareholder, and my pension wouldn't pay for the rent."
“I go back to my father," said the girl mutinously.
“You won't, I tell you."
We left them to a contradictory of ' wills ' and ' won'ts' and descended to our breakfast of coffee and rolls.
The hostess came to our table.
“Peugh! " she said, " such people aren't interesting. They take coco and then there are rows. Not comme il faut by any means. Still, it was not chic to give her a black eye. That I cannot approve of. Not correct. However, it is her own fault. She has only to go away. The fact is that she is nineteen while he is forty-five. Not the age he should have taken up with. Bound to be trouble. He has recognized the baby and had it placed on his pension card. But being nineteen she thinks she has a value for the cinema, although for my part "--la patronne's eyes narrowed, and with an outlook truly French she concluded—"after having a baby, vous comprenez, on ne peut fas dire que sa poitrine est du premier ordre."
We watched the ill-assorted pair stow themselves into the car. It started toward Paris, and we were left to wonder whether he were taking her back, damaged goods, to the champagne-bribed father, or whether he had succumbed to that strange rule of passion exercised by so many a trivial woman over even a brutal man. In that car were packed the elements that go toward making a good murder, and, considering the prevalence of crimes passionnels, we marvelled at the temerity of a silly girl who could so resolutely force herself under the sword of Damocles. In poetic justice he should stab her with one of his unbreakable fountain-pens and then write his confession with it.
But as we sipped our aperitifs la Mere Julie gave us another aspect of the question.
“Ah," she said, “those husbands. Don't I know them! For my part I pity her; I've had one myself. I tell you, m'sieur-dame, for years I brooded on how to kill him safely, the brute. Didn't he eat up two hundred thousand francs of my saved money? But he ran away before I could decide on the method. He left me ruined, and I had to take a job as cashier. It was a good job, I'll admit, in a good restaurant too. Chic clients. Prince Bibesco used to eat there, and he would always give me five hundred francs as a New Year's box. And the chocolates and flowers I had from every one! But I don't eat chocolates, and as for the flowers, pah! I used to give them to the waiters for their girls.
“But I tell you if that husband of mine had waited another year I'd have had him...."
In the jolly, rubicund mask of her face the eyes became relentless.
" He's dead now," she concluded; " but if I met him in Paradise itself, which isn't likely anyhow, I'd not forgive him, not even if le bon Dieu went down to me on His bended knees."
FRANCE A LA CARTE.
Via Chablis and Pouilly en Auxois
Recently a cargo of American mayors was shipped to Europe on a trip. The Mayor of Los Angeles, true to Volstead gained much publicity by refusing to drink any alcohol toast. In his letters home he deplored the enthusiasm with which his comrades supped the liquors of France, and while at Dijon he referred rather disparagingly to the ' light and dark wines' provided. Nothing to him were the names of ancient vineyards hallowed by the world's affection and respect. He admitted relief at leaving France and a preference for the cleanliness and the newness of Berlin. He was frankly glad at getting away from so much ' oldness.'
Certainly if ' oldness ' oppresses you do not tour France. For age imposes its duties. The temptation assails you to pry; not necessarily in a guide-book spirit, but almost every village has so much of interest hidden away that your conscience protests at each neglected opportunity.
But a second temptation is at war with the first. There is so much road to do, only so much time in which to do it. We must either take our pleasures in fragmentary half-hour rests all along the way or spend solid weeks at spots selected here and there. And while we hesitate the remorseless mechanism hurries us on, the kilometres clicking up on the speedometer with fatal regularity. Afterward we realized how much we had been dominated by the mere inanimate machine between our knees.
The feeling that it is more seemly to discuss the beauty of a landscape than the beauty of a meal is perhaps a lingering trace of English puritanism. Epicureanism is confounded with gluttony, whereas it is exactly the opposite, for your dainty diner with his many varied courses absorbs less material than the guzzler on cold beef and pickles. Undoubtedly when touring France, no matter what the speed, a most interesting part of the adventure is the gastronomic.
Before we left Paris our chemist round the corner said :
“Tiens, you will tour our beautiful France. I will send you a gastronomic map, in the publication of which I was formerly concerned. I have a number of copies left."
The map was a most ambitious undertaking, some sixteen square feet in area, compiled by that great cook M. Bourgignon, and published under the patronage of Curnonsky, the prince of gastronomers.
Already by now we had passed through the country of spiced breads and that of sugared almonds. The river-carnival at Pont-sur-Yonne floated over a famous lair of the gudgeon, a small fish over the virtues of which the English and French dictionaries differ, the Oxford saying, " Generally used as bait," while Larousse affirms that " La chair est tres delicate." We followed the lovely home of gudgeons and came to Sens, which, besides the beautiful twelfth-century cathedral, specializes in croquettes, macaroons, snails, sausages, and feves senonais. The incompleted tower of Sens would seem to indicate that architecture is not a complete art, but it illustrates a curious point in the question of nationalistic restrictions. For although France and England were at war at the time, Sens and Canterbury were built by the same architect. Thence passing through a country of eels, carp, barbels, and trout the inexorable machine hurried us into the village of Chablis just in time for lunch.
Chablis on the map stands a little isolated from mere culinary delights, but the name is underlined with a vivid streak of yellow, indicating its excellence in white wines, of which for so small a district it produces so great a quantity.
The old cafe where we took our aperitif was decorated with spiral pillars formed from old winepress screws which had a rough beauty all their own. Although Chablis on the map seems to boast of no culinary pre-eminence other than its wines you may be sure that any place which is a centre of wine pilgrimages is bound to have its temple of gastronomy.
Unluckily for us that excellent guide for gastronomers, Le Club sans Club, which lists every good dining-house within 300 kilometres of Paris, was by oversight packed deep in the wardrobe.
Impossible to get at it. And thus we missed dining at the Hotel de l’Étoile, of which the book says:
A gastronomer who doesn't know this hotel is like a Parisian who doesn't know the Place de l’Étoile itself.
But what a misfortune it is that the excellent and copious table of Monsieur Bergerand is not placed on one of the great main roads, with a resplendent dining-hall or even a garden (that passion of the tourist). But perfection not being of this world (nor of the other, by Jove, since there we only sup on beatitudes) all the joys to which you have been looking forward during these long miles must be gathered from your plates. Note also that the prices have not been increased lunch 20 francs.
The guide which should have directed us there being buried deep under spare tires, sketching materials, and rucksacks, we trusted to another method, usually quite efficient. Entering a modest shop, we bought some trivial object and enlisted the shopwoman's sympathies.
"A good table, not too dear? I can put you on to the very thing," she said, proud to be consulted on so delicate a question.
Thus by losing one thing we found another, not only saving four francs each in the process, but gaining perhaps a little more humanity. The man accustomed to serving gastronomers is rather apt to become a cook in the abstract; his soul is in a fillet, and his heart lies amid the cobwebs of the cellar.
At the far end of an ancient courtyard we found steps, lined with gay flower-boxes, leading up to a shady, vine-covered terrace. The door led straight into the kitchen, furnished chiefly with the huge flat-topped altar of a stove, on which rows of earthen cooking-pots wafted up steam offerings more grateful to our hungry noses than any frankincense or myrrh. Under the shade of the vines we sat, and as our hostess brought out dish after dish she chatted. Happy woman, she had contrived to turn her passion into her work.
“Nothing ever interested me in life so much as cooking," she declared. “I was always one of those who would rather make a new dish than a new dress."
No, we needn't regret the Hotel de l'Etoile. There he had no garden, but we had this shady pergola and these flowered steps, around which the bees were busy, while we looked down on the ancient courtyard, composed of all the centuries from the fifteenth onward, the only entrance to which was a vaulted tunnel. And we needn't grudge M. Bergerand his copious meal. We were served by a Frenchwoman whose only passion in life was cooking. One can no more describe a meal than one can describe a landscape, and a mere menu is as cold as the analytical programme of a concerto.
Chablis has a certain peculiarity: it is the only place outside of the Burgundian valley where the true grape of Burgundy, le pineau, grows in perfection. And it has this drawback, that only in one-half of the Chablis territory does this Burgundian grape grow, so that Chablis wine may either be true Burgundy or a kind of cross between champagne and Beaujolais; yet all can truly be named Chablis, so that the inexperienced wine-drinker may suffer in consequence. If you wish for the true Burgundian Chablis you •must have the Grand Chablis and no other, for even Chablis Village is squeezed from an inferior kind of grape.
We returned to our old acquaintance the Yonne at Vermonton, a land rich in its snail culture, since here begin the vines of Lower Burgundy, and on the vine-leaves the sweetest snails are reared. The elusive snail is no longer left to the haphazards of chance and the chase as in olden times. Like the silver fox domesticated, he is now the object of scientific breeding and the source of considerable profit.
Vinegar? The word is like a ... At any rate, it calls us back to the journey; for just after that we broke down exactly in the spot marked on the gastronomic map ' Vinegar.' Bumpitty, bumpitty, bump. A puncture in the back tire.
Still, the sun was shining; ' summer-time' had added another hour to our daylight, and Avallon was not so far away. In. a leisurely fashion I took off the back wheel, a dirty job, and changed the inner tube. But we were not destined to leave the bitterness of Vinegar so easily. Bang went that also; nipped, confound it!
Now we were in a pretty pickle, for on examining our box of spare patches we found the rubber solution dried up in its lead tube. Behind us we could remember no garage for some miles. So, though forward was gently uphill, we began to push hopefully on, a tiring and yet more tiring task. Cars honked at us and swept by remorselessly. No doubt they carried full tubes of tire solution. We began to pray for one example of American camaraderie of the road. Having pushed a mile or so, we at last spied a wayside hotel, to which Jo ran, not only to see if by chance a bicycle with accompanying solution lurked there, but also to get cooling drinks, of which we stood in great need. She returned with both.
As we resumed operations a man passed pushing his bike.
“Ha ! " he ejaculated, " you are punctured too. Nail? I got glass in mine, so look out as you pass along; the children have been scattering broken glass on the road, little devils! Are you going on to Avallon? "
"We shall probably spend the night there," we answered.
“Take my tip," he said. “Stay here." He pointed to the wayside inn. “You will be very much less damaged, I can tell you."
He spoke the truth. A big bedroom cost us but tenpence each, and the old proprietor, a Father Time with flowing white beard, promised us an early supper.
The dining-room cafe was dark as a cave, degenerating at one end into a village shop and furnished at the other with a fireplace as big as a small room. The wooden tables and benches were polished by the elbows of a century, and were fit companions for that ancient and massive fireplace.
“Soupe au /ait," exclaimed the old man, setting the tureen on the table with a flourish that would have done honour to the most perfect bisque.
“Mm . . ." we murmured to each other, “it’s nothing but bread and milk."
“And what wines have you?” we asked.
“There’s the ordinary wine," he said; " but I can recommend my special white wine. Ah! There’s a vintage. It is only a little wine without even a name, but, believe me, m'sieur-dame, it's better than Chablis itself. But that is what comes of advertising. ..."
Tenderly he brought us the dust-covered bottle. Remembering that we were still in the land of vinegar, we wondered if it would be a true companion to the bread and milk; but he was right up to a point. It was not a Grand Chablis, of course, no pineau entered into its fermentation, but as a little Chablis it was excellent.
“Eh! " said the old fellow, shaking his head, " they have ploughed up most of the vines hereabouts, for, voyez-vous, most of the land has gone into the hands of the bourgeois. And vines, you know, they don't pay unless you love them. You won't catch me ploughing up my vines; it would be like sacrilege, monsieur. Why, even if I was losing money on them I'd feel ashamed if I didn't have a glass of my own wine to drink. . . .
“Ham smoked in our own chimney," he went on, pointing to the great fireplace. “I tell you, there's nothing to touch your own produce, is there? You know what you are eating. There's no quality to this shop stuff. ..."
We wonder what the Mayor of Los Angeles would have said to all this.
You have some seventy miles to go, and the backbone of France to pass, if you would travel from Chablis to the Golden Slopes of Burgundy, but after the picturesque beauty of Avallon, and a detour in pilgrimage to the exquisite church of St Mary Magdalene at Vezelay, we found the road monotonous.
We had planned to spend a night at the most appropriate place in which an Englishman could spend the night, Nuits-Saint-Georges; but instead we came nearer to spending the night nowhere. One of our Moto Journal aphorisms says, “The best brake is a nervous lady passenger,” and although Jo was hardly nervous she lacked an implicit trust in her husband's ubiquity, and insisted on certain precautions. One of these was a tin of spare petrol. But her vigilance might go to sleep and the tin of spare petrol be emptied and she forget to have it filled again. Which happened not far from Pouilly-en-Auxois. Suddenly uttering a few ominous coughs, the moto refused to go farther.
“No matter," I said; “there’s a petrol-station a hundred yards along."
But the place was deserted.
No wayside tragedy can be half as tragic as that of a deserted petrol pump when your tank is empty. Despair was gripping us, but a passing commercial traveller shouted to us from his car : "A quarter of a kilometre farther on."
Luckily the road was level.
“Five litres? " asked the garage man.
As he swung the handle I asked: "Which would be the road to Nuits-Saint-Georges?" Continuing to turn the handle, he began to explain.
Suddenly, with a loud and frightful hissing, a dense cloud of petrol smoke burst from the machine and wrapped us in a stinking cloud. For full thirty seconds the shock of anticipation held us all struck silent and motionless. At my very elbow a youth held poised against his box the match he was on the point of striking. The petrol, pouring over the tank's edge, streamed down on to the hot engine, and the exhaust pipe was flowing over into the gutter.
" Jesu! " said the garage man, wiping his forehead. "What an escape! . . . Did you ever see such a fool as I? I thought we were done for. There's several thousand litres of petrol under that pump, and if only your exhaust pipe had been a bit hotter, or if Jacques there had lit his cigarette, we were all done for."
But the mind refuses to be impressed by an escape from death unless it is accompanied by some physical injury. But for luck we would have all been frizzling in a furnace of petrol. The whole village, indeed, might have shared our auto-da-fe. But all we could do was to calculate how much extra petrol he had pumped into our tank, pay him, and go. Why prolong our funeral oration?
Yet somehow we didn't feel like mounting at once. We pushed the bike along some fifty yards to a small country inn outside which two women were standing.
“How much would a room cost for the night? " asked Jo.
One woman measured us with her eye.
“Thirty francs," she said.
“Mais comment/" cried Jo. "At our last place we paid ten."
“Twenty-five, then," said the woman.
“Come along, Jo," I interrupted. “This isn't the right kind of pub. We will pop along to the next village."
I stamped on the starter, Jo leaped up behind, and off we went.
The woman's face was a picture of astonishment. She had thought us broken down and delivered as victims into her hand.
But still we were not destined to spend the night at Nuits-Saint-Georges. We had loitered long at Avallon and at Vezelay. The bad condition of the road stopped us from making any speed, and we had determined not to arrive at any new place after sunset and thus have to hunt our inn haphazard in the dark. We came to a tiny village, the only inn of which refused us, merely afraid of harbouring such unexpected strangers. We passed a fine old castle, one of the few hundreds of chateau-neufs scattered about France, and at last, thinking that we had arrived at Pont-d'Ouche, picked a humble-looking wayside inn and asked for a room. A room there was, but the place itself happened not to be Pont-d'Ouche. Still, a little thing like that couldn't disturb our rest.
All day a grey sky streaked with rain-clouds had threatened us, but on the next morning the heavens had cleared up and the sun was shining as if expressly to usher us to the Slope of Gold. On the western ascent nobody would have guessed the riches that lay just over the hilltop. Even the gastronomic map here is as blank as the landscape is unexciting.
But at last we had crossed over the crest, and stood contemplating the rich Burgundian winescape. Yet there is little nobility in the hills that produce so noble a crop. The contours are quiet, even dull, although along this ridge lies not only the wineshed but also the watershed of France. For from this apparently insignificant elevation the waters part, those on the west running to the Atlantic, those on the east to the Mediterranean. And the case is similar with the wines, for those on the west have the lighter quality of the Bordeaux, the Vouvrays, the Saumurs, the Gaillacs, and the Champagnes, those to the east containing a greater alcohol percentage and more suavity: rich, ripe wines like the Burgundies, the C6tes-du-Rhone, the onion skins of Roussillon, the muscats of Frontignan, and the heady wines of the Franche-Comte and Alsace.
Yet, standing here on the summit of the Golden Slopes, one would hardly suspect that this was a wine country at all. Along the stony crest the winds are too harsh and the soil too sterile; in the deep valley the soil is too rich, and is more suitable for the black-currant, which also makes a popular drink, cassis. Your noble wine-making grape, le pineau, as often your great genius, can draw its beauty from soils unsuitable to other crops. Half the quality of the Moselle, for instance, lies in the slaty nature of the earth, the shards of which reflect the sun upward under the vine-leaves. So here it is only on the steep slopes of the hillsides that le -pineau will grow to perfection, and these slopes, curving under our feet, were hidden from the eye.
Nevertheless to left and right of us lay one of the most precious bands of earth in the world. Something in the constitution of this Slope of Gold nurtures a grape nobler than that produced anywhere else, from which comes what Armstrong has called " the gay, serene, good-natured Burgundy." The pineau has consented to grow in other lands, in Australia, in South Africa, in California; but in so doing it has become like an expatriated Frenchman, never quite at home; and in vain does it trick itself out in old-fashioned flagons. Fancy dress deceives no palate.
These unique acres are but a strip some twenty miles long and, at the widest, not more than two miles across; but packed into this restricted area lie vineyards the names of which echo in the gourmet's memory like the chords of some unwritten Bacchic concerto. Northward of us as we stood were the vineyards of Romanee-Conti, Pouilly-Fuisse, Clos-Vougeot, Musigny, Gevrey-Chambertin, while to the south were Aloxe-Corton, Beaune, Pommard, Volnay, Meursault, Montrachet, and at last Santenay, where the pineau-bearing soil dips back again under more plebeian clods, and a less aristocratic grape carries the vine-growing industry into the Maconnais and the Beaujolais. All these amber or ruby riches, which have given men a delight equalled only by the best effects of Art, Contemplation, or Religion — for though wine-growing shares both the natures of Art and Religion it cannot properly be called of either—would be dismissed by the prohibitionist Mayor of Los Angeles as light or dark wines, and correspondingly anathematized.
An interesting discussion, something on the lines of Charles Lamb's discussion about the flagellation of sucking-pigs, might have been started on the subject of whether the miraculous wine of Cana could have surpassed in bouquet a Clos-Vougeot of '85 or a Chateau-Laffitte, '87, such wines being in themselves so miraculous that the discussion would carry no hint of irreverence. Also such wines exhibit the miraculous in man, for no matter how accurate your chemical analyst may be, although the scientist can weigh the electron in his scales, he can perceive no difference at all between wines which the gourmet will distinguish without hesitation. And when we reflect that the expert claims to differentiate not only between wines from adjacent vineyards, but between the different years in the same vineyard, measuring with precision, though aided only by the apparently crude system of glands, nerves, and cerebral reactions, variations which no kind of microscope can detect, our sense of the magic and wonder of life is deepened, and we stand looking down over the Cote-d'Or and looking inwardly upon ourselves with wonder and awe.
The last sentence does not imply that we hope to be vintage experts. A palate for wine, like skill at billiards, is clearly evidence of a misspent youth. We have called ourselves ' epicures in indigence,' and the days when really stupendous wines have come our way can be perhaps told on the fingers of two hands. Nevertheless we had skill enough, on descending into Nuits-Saint-Georges, to appreciate the wine served at the village ordinary, another vintner's banquet at three shillings a head.
Here again we asked the hostess what wine we should take, to which she answered: " Oh, you can have a vintage wine if you like, but my vin ordinaire is superior to most wines that you will find in the average cellar."
And certainly this everyday nectar more than fulfilled all one could ask of a first-class table wine, and had the further advantage of being ' compris'
Unluckily one cannot have everything. These slopes for all their richness are hardly picturesque. Part of their virtues lie in the slow curves which make them concave mirrors to the westerning sun. Yet they have a peculiar air of charm. It is amusing to see the very contours of the hills outlined with the ranks of grape stocks, as though some gigantic illustrator had sketched the landscape in vigorous strokes with some green-inked pen. Here and there in the Champagne country the hills with their serried ripples of green exhibit a peculiar beauty, but if you stay in the main valley the Cote-d'Or is rather dull.
And the villages are dull too. Too much wealth has built and rebuilt them, till they have cast out all the flavour of those ripe old villages of the Morvan and of Brie. The wine may be ripening with age in the cellars, but overhead all the old vintage architecture has been replaced to suit the swelling purses of the vintners. Here well might old Omar have exclaimed:
“I often wonder what the Vintners buy one half so precious as the Goods they sell.”
The houses mostly lack the character of the bottles that lie beneath them. No, pictorially the Cote-d'Or is a disappointment; although beneath they may be wilder than they look, for it is no more than fourteen years ago since famished wolves walked by night in the streets of Nuits-Saint-Georges. Still, one had better dream of the wine villages than visit them. From this we except Dijon, which we did not visit, and Beaune, which we did.
The beauty of the latter concentrates at the portals of the Hotel-Dieu. Meredith has warned us against widows' port, and an old seventeenth-century author holds nuns' wine responsible for a third of the ailments they suffer from. But he was not referring to the nuns of the Hospice of Beaune, for throughout the gastronomic world the sisterhood's wine holds a position of the highest respect. And what would the Mayor of Los Angeles say to that ? God's good work going on, the sick tended, the poor relieved in their distress—all on the profits from ' alcohol.' Worse than the Dublin sweepstakes!
We gazed around this ancient courtyard, with its lovely wrought-iron well-head, and we watched the sisters of mercy, coiffed in magnificent but grotesque style, going about their daily business, and we wondered whether it was the duty of some of them to qualify as wine-tasters, and thus become as practically responsible as they were morally for the high quality of their vintage. Or do they, repudiating ascetically all such worldly delights, hand over this gratifying duty to mere male employees, who can damn themselves as much as they like, and leave the way to heaven clear for the ladies? But then, of course, a Catholic country does not see wine-bibbing as a sin, and perhaps it may be the Mother Superior herself who blesses the yearly vintage with the seal of her personal approval.
Le cueur de l’homme tien joyuelx Je conforte les hommes vieux . . .says an old song of Burgundy. And one of the proudest titles of the Dukes of Burgundy was “Lords of the best wine in Christianity."
Wine has a very respectable antiquity. In an old Chaldean poem of Nimrod Noah describes how he loaded the Ark with “rivers of wine." We cannot hope to claim that this wine might have been Burgundy, but history records that in Rome Burgundy was drunk in the time of Pompey the Great. Domitian, jealous, made laws that the French vines should be torn up to prevent them from competing with the Falernian, and perhaps in consequence of this destruction the Emperor Julian was able to say that the French were poor in wines and what they did have smelt more of the he-goat than of Bacchus. But in the sixth century Gregory de Tours writes:
On the West side are rich slopes with numerous vineyards which produce for the population a wine so delicious that they despise the wines of Ascalon.
Curiously enough the age-long struggle of Quantity with Quality—in which nowadays Quality seems to be coming in a very poor second—was evident at a very early date in this quiet valley. It was a time when the population were so keen on wine-growing that they were occasionally in danger of starvation, having routed out most of the wheat-fields for vineyards. No matter how much they might despise the wines of Ascalon they sometimes did not hesitate to grow very inferior wines, in hopes of gathering a much greater profit. So that in 1395 Philip the Bold had to publish a warning, keeping his covetous subjects on the narrow path of decent wine-growing, and protecting the culture of…
the best and most precious and respectable wines of France for the nourishment and support of the human being, which because of their excellence are ordered by our Father the Pope, Monsieur the King, and many other lords, as well as gentlemen of the Church, nobles and others. . . .
Some have been planting vines of a very bad and disloyal plant called Gammez, from which plant comes great abundance of wine, but for which wine they have left desert the good places from whence the best wine comes. Which wine of Gammez is of such a nature that it is very harmful to the human creature, even so that many who have used it for some while have been struck down by grievous diseases, as we have heard, for this wine, issued and made from the said plant, of its stated nature is full of great and horrid bitterness and becomes stinking. . . .
Also some of the country from covetousness to have more wine
put and cause to be put or carried to these vines of superior planting the dung of cows, sheep, or horses and other animals, the horns of animals, the scrapings of lanthorns and other filth and beastliness, which causes the vines to become fat and yellow and in such a state that no human creature can use them properly without peril to his being. . . .
But nowadays these Burgundian slopes are among the last strongholds of Quality against Quantity. From hence Quality will never more be banished, at least as long as France shall retain its delight in good wines and can resist the insidious preachings of the prohibitionists.
Yet France has not always been the best protector of her great vineyards, for it is a curious fact that often an Act of Parliament can harm the very thing that it is designed to protect. There are no laws subtle enough to protect Quality. Thus the laws ordaining that no wine should be sold except under the name of the place where it was grown has really done more harm to Burgundy than help. For, while Burgundy has thirty-two parishes in all, only six are really well known in the wine trade — Vougeot, Nuits, Beaune, Pommard, Volnay, and Meursault. In former years, for instance, Santenay could be sold as Pommard and equalled Pommard, and was often substituted for Pommard in a bad year, as it might have been this year, for instance, when the hailstones almost totally destroyed the Pommard vines. Thus the regular makes could keep up a more even quality, whereas now they are all lumped together, good years and bad. The vintner now sells by law what he would never have dared to offer had it been left to his mere commercial integrity.
Apart from the odd question of manure, a few other oddities about the old vine culture may be noted. Any man who could plant a row of vines without a reprimand from the owner of the soil could claim that ground. He had to give another piece in exchange, but of any quality. But if he planted after being forbidden by the owner he lost both his vines and his labour. Also any goats, sheep, or pigs found trespassing in the vineyards could be killed at sight.
It may not be common knowledge that white wine is not necessarily made from white grapes. When the grapes are pressed, no matter what their colour, the juice is yellowish; to make red wine the grape-skins are left in the juice during fermentation. To test the true quality of a red wine you should use a shallow silver cup; if the thin edge of the wine against the silver looks yellowish it will not make a good wine, but if purple it will mature. As wine grows older it becomes darker.
Good wine should be bottled from the cask only on sunny days in November, March, or July, with the moon on the wane and no west wind. The belief in the influence of the moon is far-reaching; we have found it in America connected with the planting of onions and the setting of fence posts. With regard to wine it can easily be tested, for the authorities assert that if two barrels of identical wine are bottled at different periods of the moon the two batches will turn out differently. Some radio action is suspected, as also in the queer case of Burgundy and Belgium. Burgundies mature very well in Belgian cellars, which, however, ruin the wines of Bordeaux. On the other hand, the Cote-d'Azur is death to all decent wines.
The size of the bottles has an influence on the maturing, the bigger the bottle the more slowly it ages. So, if you order half a bottle of a good wine you may be in danger of getting something that has already begun to degrade in quality. With such wines the older is not necessarily the better. That is true of port, but Burgundies and Bordeaux can easily be kept too long; they are not suitable for a miser's stock.
An epicure has given the following advice on serving Burgundy:
Use a large thin white glass, pour out slowly, but leave it three-quarters full. A man who has not drunk his wine does not want it refilled, but when he has emptied it at once offer him more. This may be considered as the true etiquette of the wine-drinker.
A good wine should never be decanted; even the pouring from bottle to decanter lets some of the most delicate essences escape.
In Biblical times the best wine was served first; later the pressed, no matter what their colour, the juice is yellowish; to make red wine the grape-skins are left in the juice during fermentation. To test the true quality of a red wine you should use a shallow silver cup; if the thin edge of the wine against the silver looks yellowish it will not make a good wine, but if purple it will mature. As wine grows older it becomes darker.
Good wine should be bottled from the cask only on sunny days in November, March, or July, with the moon on the wane and no west wind. The belief in the influence of the moon is far-reaching; we have found it in America connected with the planting of onions and the setting of fence posts. With regard to wine it can easily be tested, for the authorities assert that if two barrels of identical wine are bottled at different periods of the moon the two batches will turn out differently. Some radio action is suspected, as also in the queer case of Burgundy and Belgium. Burgundies mature very well in Belgian cellars, which, however, ruin the wines of Bordeaux. On the other hand, the Cote-d'Azur is death to all decent wines.
The size of the bottles has an influence on the maturing, the bigger the bottle the more slowly it ages. So, if you order half a bottle of a good wine you may be in danger of getting something that has already begun to degrade in quality. With such wines the older is not necessarily the better. That is true of port, but Burgundies and Bordeaux can easily be kept too long; they are not suitable for a miser's stock.
An epicure has given the following advice on serving Burgundy:
Use a large thin white glass, pour out slowly, but leave it three-quarters full. A man who has not drunk his wine does not want it refilled, but when he has emptied it at once offer him more. This may be considered as the true etiquette of the wine-drinker.
This eulogy of Burgundy will probably raise a protest from the lovers of Bordeaux. Chacun ses gouts. Or, as a witty French judge said to a lady who had asked him his preference: "Madame, it is a trial at which I have so much pleasure in examining the evidence that I always postpone the verdict from one week to another."
A MARRIAGE AND A CEMETERY
Santenay les Bains
In Paris the waiter at our habitual restaurant had been very excited when he heard that we were off on a moto trip round France. Of course, if you have dined for long at one place the waiter already counts himself something more than a mere acquaintance. He has acquired at least an unofficial surveillance of your stomach, a volunteer tummy-guard, as it were; he helps you on with your overcoat not as a part of duty, but as one pal to another. When he finds out that you are both brothers in the moto freemasonry he may, as our waiter did, extend to you an invitation to his father's house en route.
And thus seeking our waiter's father's house we came to Santenay-les-Bains, the last outlier to the south of the famous valley of the Cote-d'Or. Santenay was placed, as are many of the wine villages, a little off the main road, along a track that rapidly degenerates into almost unmacadamized earth, running between the vineyards stained bright blue with sulphate, so that all the vines seemed as if carved out of precious stone rather than mere living plants washed with vermin-killer. An ancient bridge and a great glade of shadowy trees separated the village from the vineyards, and out of the shadows we emerged suddenly on to the •place of Santenay. It was a pleasant place, with the quiet spaciousness of a bygone day. On three sides the irregular houses looked over the stumpy, flat-topped trees surrounding the central fountain, and the fourth side, backing the distant hills, was occupied by a small country chateau, with a balustraded terrace on the first storey, and what were evidently the cart-sheds, winepress vaults, and byres beneath. The whole was flooded in the light of a sun already becoming so meridional that the contrast between sunlight and shadow was quite painful to the eye.
Our Parisian waiter's father kept the local hotel. Here we had two from which to choose. Picking the better, we ordered aperitifs.
“Is it here that Monsieur Marty lives?” we asked the girl.
“But, no,” cried the girl; "Monsieur Marty lives at the last village, that at the corner, where you left the main road."
We turned back reluctantly, for Santenay had charmed us.
“Monsieur Marty?” said a workman at the last village.
“Certainly. Monsieur Marty lives there." He pointed to a cobbler's shop.
“But, no," we said;” it is the Monsieur Marty who has an hotel and a son in Paris."
“There is no Monsieur Marty here who has either hotel or son in Paris," said the workman.
“Is there one at Santenay, then?”
We pulled out our notebook and stared at the address that the waiter had given us. We showed it to the workman.
“Certainly it could be Santenay," he agreed, " but then it might be Lantenay. And there is a Lantenay at the other end of the Cote-d'Or. ..."
We looked at the map. There it was, an unguessable village, while close at hand lay the serene beauty of Santenay-les-Bains which had so charmed us. We retraced our path through the tinted vines and found rooms at the inviting hotel. Like the place, it too had the spaciousness of other days. An immense staircase led up to a broad landing massed with green plants; below was a huge ballroom. But there was no garage, and we had to leave the ' wardrobe' out in the yard, covered with a tarpaulin. The yard steps led upward to a green-covered terrace along which the women of the house were bustling to and fro in what was clearly no everyday affair.
“Come and see,” said Madame, smiling with a twinkle of sly anticipation.
She conducted us into a small suite, upholstered and papered with a ferocious vim of everyday interior decoration that combined the recklessness of the modern with the tastelessness of the nineties. The rooms hit our colour sensibilities a tingling upper-cut. We blinked, but dissimulated.
“Isn’t that nice?" cried our ogling hostess. "That's for the bridal couple. This is where they will hide for the night, and nobody can suspect that they are here."
“But what harm would it do if anybody should know? " we asked.
“Assuredly," said our hostess, "it is the custom here. These two are going to be married to-morrow. And during the dancing at night they must contrive to slip away. If they cannot find for themselves some secret spot the others will give them no peace; the crowd will serenade them, beat old pots and pans, break into their room perhaps. And that is far from agreeable on one's wedding night, you understand. But nobody will think of looking for them here. They will be quite safe. ..."
The dining-room of the hotel was decorated with a similar eye-aching newness, but, thank goodness! no novelties had crept into the menu. That maintained the standard to which we were accustomed, and a bottle of the real Burgundian Santenay linked together the well-served courses. Over our heads hung two water-colours which attracted our attention. We asked the patronne how she had come by them.
“Ah, m’ sieur-dame" she answered, “there is a tale attached to those pictures. They were done by a girl. Ah, what a heroine! No lessons; she painted as by nature. Alas, she suffered from a slow creeping paralysis. But would that stop her? Pas du tout. When she could no longer hold the brush in her fingers she had it tied to her hand, and when she could no longer move her arms she held the brush in her teeth. That, ma foi, is true courage."
Of the two paintings one had been done, she told us, with the teeth, and considering the method it was a performance wholly remarkable. The colour was brilliant, the drawing sufficient, the composition not without originality. Indeed, considering what she had been able to achieve over such disabilities, we were tempted to think that, but for the terrible disease that carried her off at the age of twenty-six, she might well have become one of the most remarkable women painters of France.
Until the next morning we hardly had noted the patron; he served us with our breakfast. Something in his face stirred our memories, and he too looked at us as if searching back into the past.
“M’sieur-dame, you have not been to Santenay before?” he queried.
“No,” we said; "but your face is strangely familiar. Wait a minute. . . ."
“I have it!” cried Jo. “The Ville de Brest. You were a waiter there. . . ."
“And now I remember,” he said; " you were the patron's English clients.”
Truth can be stranger than fiction indeed. Owing to the bad writing of the present waiter at this Ville de Brest restaurant in Paris we had arrived by chance at the hotel of a former waiter at the same place. In Paris this man had served our table many a time,
He told us how, having amassed their little pecule, the careful savings of many years, he and his wife had decided to try their fortunes in the country.
“It is the auto, m'sieur-dame, that has altered everything in the catering business of France," he said. “Where formerly there was little gain in keeping a country inn, now the business can be made very profitable. But only in one way: by giving the best and not stinting the trouble. Thus you get known; one satisfied client tells another. That is better than any advertisement. You should have seen this place when we bought it. A frightful condition! No clients other than a few villagers who came in nightly for a drink; that fills no pockets. And the proprietor an old curmudgeon who wouldn't give you a meal unless he felt inclined to do so. The place was empty. We got it cheap. And now . . . in three years ... I can assure you that if you had arrived next month, or at any time during the next three months, you wouldn't have got a room. We are booked up till late October. All done by careful attention to the food and to unstinted service.
“And what is the result? The people of the inn opposite are furious with us. They call us a pair of interloping Parisians. They say we have stolen their custom. It may be indeed that some who used to go to them now come to us because we give better value, but on the other hand they have gained enormously by taking on our overflow. After all, fair competition is fair competition; that is how we Parisians look at it. But not these country folk. This is their village, and we are little better than robbers. The meannesses, the jealousies, the scandal, in a little, quiet place like this are almost unbelievable. Ah, yes, my friends, we have indeed proved ourselves; but we have suffered too. They call me a bandit. A bandit? Did you ever hear the like? And I wouldn't like to say how many thousand francs a year extra I have put into their pockets."
The continual back-to-the-land flux is perhaps one of the interesting phases of modern French life. Of the eight country inns or restaurants in which we had slept or lunched six had been held by those who, having gained their money in towns, had carried it out to the country. This phenomenon persisted all through our tour. We noted that wherever the Parisians settled they at once raised the standard of comfort, the style and quality of lodgings and meals, but without unduly raising the price. As a rule they returned to their family districts, or often, which illustrates the odd power of the woman in a French household, to the land of origin of the wife. Sometimes they might be tempted back by small legacies of land, but more often because they could see the advantage of pitting their town-sharpened wits against the slower mentalities of their country cousins. In such cases they were soon initiated into the local cliques by relatives. They were du pays, members of the clan. But a case of absolute outsiders was on a different footing. These were little better than vampires, brigands indeed. Their very success engendered bitterness, no matter how much they might add to the increased custom of the place. French jealousy has an acid quality, and is easily aroused by any departure from the natural order of things. Men would bite their nails with rage at the thought of maudits etrangers making money out of their village.
In time naturally the feelings tended to weaken, but we judged that these present proprietors would not stay long enough. From a hint or two dropped by the hostess we guessed that this pair were really engaged in an adventure rather different from that of plain innkeeping. They belonged to the species of business developers. They would work up this hotel to its full capacity, expand the business as far as Santenay would permit, and then sell out, taking their gross profits rather from the increased capital value than from the actual earnings year by year. Thus they could afford to work on the narrowest margin of profit, and give for the modest pension fees demanded high value, both in cuisine and in wine.
During the morning we walked up through Lower and Upper Santenay to the little old chapel of St John, passing along the line through the vineyards that roughly divides the rich land of Burgundy from its poorer cousin of the Chalonnais. The division is purely geological: on the one hand is the one kind of soil on which the plneau will grow, on the other is that on which only a poorer kind of wine-making grape flourishes. Yet as both grapes are grown in Santenay there can be no distinction of name, and thus Santenay like Chablis as a mere wine must always be noted with distrust. It may have a head of gold, but its feet, alas! are of humble clay.
We did not go into the chapel of St John, for the Virgin there, although a local curiosity cut from the solid rock, is but a mediocre piece of sixteenth-century sculpture. But we made a quiet pilgrimage into the little graveyard, noting how the tombs were numbered like houses in a street, some even, slipped in between older graves, bearing numbers such as 16 bis and so on. A prominent notice warned sorrowing relatives that:
“All dead flowers and worn-out wreaths must be thrown into the refuse-box provided for the purpose."
This notice made us wonder at what period of decay could one of those queer wreaths be properly considered as worn out. They were monstrous and elaborate structures of glazed beads strung on iron wire bent into similitude of rigid flowers, stiff leaves, decorative scallops, and arabesques'. These apparently imperishable advertisements of family woe were piled up against the monuments with a grotesque effect.
Flowers on a grave should have a tender delicacy appropriate to the feelings which they are chosen to symbolize. A beautiful little Spanish verse thus translates the sentiment:
'Mother, see the churchyard flowers On the graves where dead lie sleeping, When the wind bows down their heads Do you think that they are weeping ?'
The English mind accepts with difficulty, as proper substitutes, these strange, barbaric, and often hideous grave ornaments so universally beloved by the French. They inspire all the wrong kinds of associations. Their crudeness, their apparent indestructibility, the suggestion that they are an economic substitute for real wreaths—economical not only in present cost, but in future trouble—the silvered assertiveness of their legends, all move the Englishman to cynicism, even while he does not deny to the French a capacity for deep and sincere grief. The placing of these hideous emblems is to-day a matter of mere convention, but that such an idea should ever have been allowed to grow into a convention makes one remember those terrible domestic dramas of Balzac or de Maupassant. One could place such an emblem with a sort of sardonic joy on the grave of a detested brother. But to symbolize deep grief by means of glass beads and iron wire! They remind us of a recent American invention: the codified form of telegraphic condolence or congratulation. A sorrowing relation in the U.S.A. need only telephone to the post-office thus:
“Say, I want you to wire me form D7, see? The name's Aunt Kate, signed Tom. Here's the direction."
The following telegram is produced at the stipulated address:
"Have just heard with heartfelt sorrow of dear Aunt Kate's sudden end. My deepest sympathies are with you at this sad moment. Tom."
In the formal placing of these grotesque wreaths against the headstone a curious feature of French family life was evident—the importance of the brother-in-law. One can scarcely eavesdrop at any French conversation without hearing, sooner or later, of the beau-frere. A man with a beau-frere has for ever a companion, critic, counsel, and commentator as ubiquitous as Sairey Gamp's Mrs Harris. And lest this should be considered a whimsical perversion on our part we offer the evidence of the tomb. On a typical grave the motto “To our Beau-frere " occupied the central place.” To Father " and " To Husband " flanked it merely; " To Son-in-law " stood vertically above, with Brother on one hand and Nephew on the other; smaller offerings to Cousins formed a kind of coronet at the top.
Yet although these wreaths of bead and wire seem logically so indestructible, especially in a quiet so remote as that of this deserted churchyard, some strange elemental nevertheless disintegrates them. What mysterious forces of nature strip the beads from the wires? What thin fingers of the wind rob them of their silvered letters? In this quiet cemetery under the hills one might expect the wreaths to last almost for centuries. Or do the manufacturers make them of materials so subtle that they shall not overlive too long the waning of grief?
And so at last we return to the first problem: when is a wreath so outworn that it is fit only for the refuse-box? We have seen one labelled A . . T . . O . CL . ; another .... POUX . . GR . TTE . But they served. Instead of tears there were still letters or beads to drop, thus providing an automatic substitute, something in the nature of the Tibetan's praying-wheel.
The village church-bells below clashed for the wedding, but we saw nothing of it till the bridal party arrived at the hotel for their evening aperitif. Dressed, except the bride, in stiff black— the peasant's attire for occasions grave or gay — they all sat, primly almost, uncheered by the efforts of a best man who played the traditional country buffoon, with jests calculated to raise a blush even to the simplest cheek.
At supper the patronne came to us with a request that we would escort to the bridal ball her niece, a pretty girl from Paris, who was on the point of finishing her holiday here.
“But we have not been invited," we said.
“Bah, that is nothing; everybody is invited,” said the patronne. “And la petite being from Paris, you understand. . . .”
We had heard in instalments the story of this pretty girl of eighteen. The mother, an ill-natured, improvident woman, had handed the child over to this couple at the age of three. They had brought her up as their own daughter. But when the child was fifteen the mother insisted on having her back.
“Figure to yourselves," exclaimed our hostess dramatically, " not only does she rob us of the child whom we had come to think of as our own, but she takes her back from a decent life to a pigsty. She has ruined my brother, and they live in filth. For what reason I ask you? Listen to this. She says in these very words: ' Why should one of my children be happy when all the others are unhappy? Let her sup like the others.' Can you understand such a nature? "
Unluckily such a nature, jealous of the happiness of others, is, if not common in France, at least sufficiently common to be noticeable. Maybe such natures flourish everywhere, but in France the skin of repression is thinner. We might venture a simile from our respective salad-dressing : in England the oil and vinegar of human nature are beaten together till they blend as a creamy emulsion, while in France they are merely jostled with a fork in the bowl of a spoon, and the oil tends to float, a thin skin, over the vinegar below. So that, although there may be almost the same amount of oil and vinegar in each, both ingredients are far more noticeable with the French.
There was little rustic gaiety at the dance. Sterne's insouciant milkmaid dancing with her placket-hole open was not in evidence, nothing of that
Viva la joy a Fidons la tristessa.
The sad Sunday-black seemed to prevail in the hearts of the guests isolated into small groups in the huge room. And each member of the orchestra, consisting of cornet, accordion, and violin, was accomplishing the difficult task of keeping as far out of tune with his fellows as possible without falling into a different key. How a man with so unlucky an ear as the violinist ever managed to learn an instrument at all passed our understanding.
In everyday public intercourse the French are famed for the easiest manners imaginable. A lack of self-consciousness and an enjoyment of mere conversation makes France the country of Europe most pleasant in humanities for the tourist. Yet their family life is often a complete contrast to their superficial behaviour. Here was no hint of the easy good nature of the cafe. The bride, the groom, their families and retainers, stood awkwardly about; the guests and visitors sat self-consciously on benches round the walls. We left the pretty girl, thinking that her beauty would attract some village swain; but after half an hour she was still uninvited, and trembling with mortification. We took her off for a drink and a chat. At last, however, we had to leave her, and went off to bed.
Some hours later we were awakened by shouting, the clatter of running feet, and the sound of a car. We jumped to the window. The door of the big ballroom stood open. In the long shaft of light cast across the roadway the guests crowded, while underneath our windows a knot of young fellows shouted and gesticulated. A car was just turning out of the decorative little square, and was making off toward Upper Santenay.
“Les voila! " cried the crowd, as two youths appeared round the corner pushing motor-bicycles.
“They shan't escape us like that, by God!” they shouted. Leaping on to the saddles, they made off after the fugitives, their headlamps cutting out successive vivid vignettes of the old square as they sped.
“They’ll be copped all right," we laughed.
But the next morning, at Le petit dejeuner, we learned that the car was only a decoy. Driven by the jester, it had almost reached Upper Santenay before the motor-cycles could overtake it. And by that time the couple were quietly I settled in their garish paradise, enjoying no doubt a state of 'bliss that took little account of the aesthetic values of wallpapers.
Next morning was marked by a general exodus from the village. Quite early we were awakened by the sounds of toots, squeakers, and Klaxons, but they had nothing to do with the overnight wedding. Looking down from our windows, we saw the village bucks setting off in their cars—or on bicycles—bristling with fishing-rods, dangling with landing-nets, and loaded with creels. This day was one of the most important in the year to about a tenth of the population of France. It was the opening of la Peche,
Salmon, trout, carp, perch, bream, tench, pike, eel, gudgeon, or minnow were all now legal prey. The banks of those quiet rivers would be no longer deserted by their ruminating sportsmen. A holocaust of worms must this day celebrate the event, tempting by their writhing agony the fishy appetite, although they might gain, but know it not, their revenge in the very act of their engorging. Our old friend of Pont-sur-Yonne would once more resume his station as the doyen of the eel-fishers.
Is it the spirit of contrast that makes the excitable French so enthusiastic about this masculine and monastic sport? We do not speak of the ingenuity of fly-fishing. The Frenchman does not pit his wits against the fish; he is essentially not searching for activity. It is the peace of out-of-doors, the hypnotic concentration on the float swimming, a vivid dot of red or yellow, against the olive translucence of the water, the slow motion of the punt, the dreamy hum of the midge in the summer air, that attracts him. A dolcee far niente business with yet a thin thread of occupation and hope running through it.
The nearest centre of activity was Verdun-sur-le-Doubs, at the junction of the Doubs and the Sa6ne, just where the rich lands of the Bresse abut on those of the Burgundy.
“You should go there to-day, monsieur," said the host. “There will be a great fishing feast. Five hundred autos at least, and I will bet that no restaurant cooks less than fifty kilos of fish. Tiens, there goes the owner of the casino. A great fisherman, monsieur. Up at seven almost every day of the fishing season, but of course he leaves his wife at home....”
This feast at Verdun did not tempt us; we had no wish to experience fishermen in packed masses.
Although at first sight Santenay had charmed us, the charm could not hold. That red dot on the map, indicating an interesting spot to visit, proved to be an old mineral spring; once used by the Romans, of course. A pump-room had been built and a large hotel; also a casino had been added, according to the infallible rule that would prove that all those ' ‘arthrites’ 'hepatites, ' pierre-ites,' and, in fact, all alkaline-water drinkers, must have not only uric acid but gambling also in the blood, so that both can be treated at the same time. Here the country gambler, called in slang a ' cheese merchant,' could risk his five-franc counters twice a week.
Santenay as a watering-place had not prospered. The large hotel was shut, and the pump-room seemed unfrequented. But the casino carried on the bi-weekly business, with a weird old nut of a croupier whose face looked like a map of almost all the most undesirable experiences that life could contain.
So the visual charm of Santenay suffered much from its experience as a watering-place. The visitors had already patronized the natives into an attitude of aloof commercialism characteristic of such places. They had been lowered to the rank of parasites.
We turned our tail-lights on Santenay without any great regret, and set off still southward toward the broad lands of the Beaujolais and Macon.
A Village from a Monastery,
Sainte Croix en Jarez
At Macon we came with suddenness upon the South. Theoretically the South does not start till you have passed Valence, on the Rhone, still a hundred miles away. But Macon proved to be as south as we could wish.
This southernness one can't help but recognize; it hits you in the eye. No matter where the change comes it is almost always sudden. It depends on whether the builder wishes to be warm in the winter or cool in the summer. Oddly enough, the person who likes to be warm in winter will cheerfully sweat in summer, while he who likes his summer cool freezes during the winter with a Spartan stoicism. Perhaps the man who likes to keep warm has a cool temperament, while he who seeks the cool is by nature warm and impulsive. In the North they enlarge the windows, in the South they make them smaller; in the South too they build the walls thicker and thicker against the sun, while in the Arctic Circle one may winter cosily in houses of plank. Old Aesop proves himself once more—the sun is an enemy feared more than the storm.
The little hotel that we found was in some ways a compromise. It faced north and south, so that its front had the aspect of a small Northern hotel, while the back blossomed into outside staircases, balconies, and loggias.
A Southern spaciousness marked the river-front, where a fine, wide boulevard bordered the stream. A combination of circumstances has gained this pleasant sense of elbow-room for French towns. We heard an amusing comment on the difference between America and Europe in this respect. A small-town Middle-Westerner stood contemplating the Place de la Concorde. His realtor's heart was wrung so that at last he burst out disgustedly: “Say, ain't they got no sense of the value of land in this burg?”
Southern too was the appearance of the people lolling at the tables on the wide pavements. With warmth everything becomes softer, even iron. Human manners are no exception to the rule; heat induces that Southern ease which acts like a charm on our Northern inhibitions, so that many a self-locked Englishman, having once submitted to the lure of the South, can hardly drag himself away from it for long.
Next day on the road we came on a large notice: “Turn to the right for the Windmill."
But we continued our route under the tall, shady trees that fashioned the long, straight roads into vaults of green-roofed cathedrals. After Chablis, Nuits-Saint-Georges, Corton, and Meursault, the Moulin a Vent for all its quality would have been a bit of a come-down. The Maconnais is but a poor cousin of the Burgundy, and here flourishes unrestricted by law that “very bad and disloyal plant called Gammez." As for the wine of Macon itself, Alexander Dumas always used to make Athos, Porthos, Aramis, and d'Artagnan drink it when they could afford nothing better. It is what may be called an impoverished-gentleman's wine.
By the look of things, though, the wine-growers aren't impoverished. The hills were dotted with Southern-looking homes. Superficially speaking, this part of the land appeared richer than the Cote-d'Or. But then one of the quarrels between the Pineau and the Gammez was that the latter gave a greater quantity of wine. Even in the fourteenth century the fight between Quantity and Quality had begun.
At one of the dozens of Villefranches scattered about France we turned from the fruitful Saone into the hills, intent on dodging the nuisance of Lyons. The name Bois d'Oingt tempted us, but the sacred grove is no longer. Passing through L'Arbresle, which has a solid old castle, we came to Saint-Symphorien, named after a saint who has patronized a dozen towns or villages hereabouts. We have a biographical dictionary which claims to record “the great of all times and of all lands." It is a Victorian version picked up on the Paris quays for sixpence, not quite as solid as it looks, for surely it might have found place for St Symphorien when it records such great people as these:
Russel, Jack (1795-1883). Born at Dartmouth and educated at Oxford, was perpetual curate of Symbridge near Blandford 1832—80, and withal master of foxhounds and sportsman generally.
Catchpole, Margaret (1773-1841). A Suffolk girl who for horse-stealing and prison-breaking was twice sentenced to death but was transported to Australia where she married and died respectable.
I suppose in Victorian eyes a Catholic saint and martyr was of less interest than a curate. Even George Eliot was a little emotional about curates, and a perpetual curate! He would never sing: "Ah, me, i was a pale young curate then.”
Or to be twice sentenced to death for stealing is more thrilling than to be only once executed for faith. However, if you begin to put in all the saints in all the calendars. . . . Sic transit gloria .
Still, Saint-Symphorien has done St Symphorien very well. He has, for the size of the place, a magnificent edifice. It is not a jewel of recognized architecture, but nevertheless the church is so massive, and so situated, that if one is in a receptive mood it fairly takes the breath away. Set high on a rocky eminence, it stands looking over the plain, solid as the conning-tower of a battleship.
The afternoon was getting late as we passed through the town of this despised saint. We had two minds to halt here, having made ourselves a promise that we would not travel after dark. Hunting through an unknown town by lamplight for a suitable hotel is a wretched business. Before us, twenty miles away, was a large-looking place, Saint-Etienne, of which we knew nothing. But we calculated that we must find in those twenty miles some village pub at which to sleep.
The road went on unwinding itself from the hills, but no suitable pub appeared. Five miles from Saint-Etienne we turned a corner, and suddenly found ourselves entangled in a tramway-line.
Gradually the freshness was withdrawn from the landscape. An air of increasing dinginess began to surround us, the houses degenerated, grimy as though their faces were never washed by the rain. The country became a slum street. At last here was a pub.
It did not look very inviting, but we stopped and entered. The inside was dark, for daylight was waning. From out of the shadows came a man whose face looked as if it had acquired something from the machine age in which he lived, so that it was of harder texture than flesh, and needed polish instead of soap. The high lights glittered on his skin as he looked at us unreceptively:
“This is no place for you.”
“But,” we protested, “we only want a lodging for the night. A cheap place.”
“Not here,” he said, and ushered us to the door. “You’ll find a suitable hotel farther along.”
The class-consciousness of labour had turned us out.
Then as we progressed the mystery of Saint-Etienne was explained. Against the afterglow tall pylons stood up black on the tarnished gilt; from black mounds smoke of strange hues coiled up lazily, tainting the atmosphere with the odours of a gasworks; steam, pale lilac against the light, spat up in tall plumes, dissolving as it rose; black causeways carried rumbling trucks over our heads; sirens hooted and whistles shrilled, as though unimaginable monsters were hunting a screaming victim. We had come by accident on one of the great coalfields of France.
We found our hotel after dark. It advertised on its facade: “This hotel is a member of the Society of Commercial Travellers, much frequented by the members, where they equally read the Tribune.” To our sorrow it was at the moment unfrequented by travellers. We would willingly give half of your famous dinner wits for a few selected French bagmen. These brothers of the catalogue have wandered much, and it is not mere manufactured goods that they sell, but charm; the goods are only a by-product. Professional charmers they may be, but how satisfactory it is at times to meet really competent professionalism! Contrast the professional pianist with the amateur. The amateur may even be the superior in emotion, nevertheless there is a queer satisfaction in the competent touch of the professional, a sense of certainty that delights. So too even in charm; it is a pleasure to find a man who plays his charm with precision, not with the obviousness that marks the amateur.
One of the most outstanding talkers of the road had been a piano-tuner. He toured France on a motor-bicycle, making a most extensive round. His pleasure at our reception of his talk was so great that he declared:
“Oh, bother! This evening I did have an appointment to go and tune the piano at the convent. But I'll just disappoint them this year. After all, isn't it the duty of nuns to mortify the flesh? Besides, they are faithful souls, they'll forgive me one year all right."
And without further qualms of conscience he settled down to his cigar, wine, and more stories.
I had been poring over the map to find the quickest road to the Rh6ne, so that we might escape from the smoke-stained horror of this coal city. We were twenty-three miles from the river.
Escape! As we went the industry grew thicker and thicker about us. Eternal jolting cobbles carried us from one village to another, altering only in name. It was incredible that, with all the splendid countryside round about, humans would consent to live in such dingy squalor. Broken Venetian blinds hid most of the windows, as though the inhabitants were so inured to their troglodytic work that they shunned the light of day. Not a hint of the neatness that we almost associate with the name of France. And in turn the surroundings seemed to have an effect on the people. As we had come south we had noted a gradual increase of human beauty all along, as though the increasing power of the sun permitted a fuller and easier development. But here the faces were almost all pinched and toil-marked, with a peculiar waxy ugliness, as if a law of nature dictated that though beauty might grow on a dung-heap it should not on a coal-dump.
We could not travel fast. No road surface can equal the jolting of degenerating cobbles, and of all road surfaces cobbles seem the most difficult to repair. After fifteen miles of torture I swerved abruptly to the right into a side-road, careless of where it might lead, if only out of this squalor and discomfort.
It was an escape all right, but... French roads are classed. There is the National Route, the Departmental Route, the Road of Grand Communication, the Road of Common Interest, and the road of the Parish ordinary. They might be the roads through a new Pilgrim's Progress. The road we had ventured on was an ordinary road, even using the word ordinaire, which in the French sense is not complimentary. Once in my inexperience I said to a Frenchman: "Mais, monsieur, un homme ordinaire comme vous," and he wanted to knock me down. That's the kind of ordinary road this was.
In addition it twisted and curled and curled and twisted. Later we learned that in seven miles it had a hundred and twenty acute-angled curves. And lonely; in the seven miles not one house. The contrast from that sweating, smoking, over-populated valley to these empty hills could not have been greater; a slum set in a desert.
Suddenly turning a corner, we saw, set on a low cliff that projected into the valley, an extensive and massive square of ancient building. It made us think of a Tibetan lamasery. Above the line of its pantile roofs a tall tower rose from the centre of the square. A valley separated us from the strange place, and we had to circle a strong corner tower before we came to the entry, flanked by old, round towers. Beside one of the gate towers was a simple cafe. We sat ourselves on a bench at a trestle-table.
“And what place can this be?” we asked over our aperitifs.
“This is Sainte-Croix-en-Juarez," answered the rough maid.
“And may one lodge here?”
“I will ask the patronne.'"
The patronne led Jo up a winding stair built in the tower and ushered her into a room looking over the central courtyard.
“And what will the price be?” asked Jo.
“I will ask the patron," said the patronne.
Clearly the patron and the patronne held a careful parley to decide how much they could possibly ask from travellers such as ourselves. Whether they charged us the normal fee or whether they took a big breath and risked more we cannot say, but at last the woman returned and answered:
“The patron says it will be twenty francs”
“What!” we exclaimed. “For a room?”
“Oh, no, for everything.”
“Good!” we said nonchalantly. “Bring on the lunch as soon as you like.”
It was, we think, a hen that first made us feel at home in Sainte-Croix. As we were lunching it approached us. I stared at the hen, the hen stared at me; I burst into a laugh, the hen cocked its eye.
“Look,” I cried to Jo, “she's the image of Bernard Shaw.”
Perhaps I should not have said this. I am not an intimate of Bernard Shaw; I have seen him but infrequently. What I should have said is, “She is the image of the images of Bernard Shaw,” or perhaps even, more properly, “She is the image of my mental image of all the images of Bernard Shaw that I have seen." The hen was looking only for a crop of food, but she looked as if she were looking for a paradox with that persistent hennish expression which should imply, “If you say so I'll say the exact opposite.”
“Yes,” replied Jo, giving me a Roland for my Oliver, and that aged dog is exactly like the grotesquest Fratelini."
So, with the clown of the serious on one side and the clown of the ridiculous on the other, how could we help but feel at home?
In the little place before the two great gate towers the patron was cleaning barrels. He was a black-bloused man, a blend not uncommon in the South—three parts peasant to one of aristocrat. He was lowering a chain on a string through the bung-hole. He then poured in water and, having driven the bung tight, rolled the barrels round the place, tilting them in various directions. In a jiffy the chain had scoured the inside clean. Simple and ingenious, but what did they do before chains were invented?
Like most Frenchmen, he was not averse to a chat, and as soon as his barrels were clean he accepted a glass of coffee-and-cognac. Then he explained to us the origin of Sainte-Croix's strange appearance.
“It was a monastery, you see,” he said. “They built it in the thirteenth century. Quoi? A woman she was, yes. But in the Revolution they kicked out all those fat fathers, and it was bought by the people, as you see, and so it has remained, you understand. This hotel, par exemple it was used by the pilgrims—a lodging-place, hein ? Look at the arches inside; that is of the Gothic, quoi? There's a book all about the monastery and the legend, all. You mustn't fail to see the ironwork in the gateway. Go just within the main gate and turn to the left. Ah! that, par exemple, they say it is a masterpiece, not that I know about such things myself; each to his own trade. The Government want to make us a Monument historique, but we won't agree to that, you see; for it would be a fearful nuisance, quoi, not being able to alter anything without the permission of the experts—the animals!—and that wouldn't suit us at all. Because in the end, m'sieur-dame, it's we who have to live here, is it not, precisely."
A motor-lorry was driven up, and from the seat a man lurched down. The driver had not exactly the air of a Frenchman. Somehow he was coarsened, and had we been asked to guess his nationality we would have ventured Montenegrin-American miner from Mauch Chunk, in Pennsylvania.
The host, however, brought him forward and introduced him as his brother. Holding out an enormous hand, the brother proved the nearness of our guess by exclaiming:
"Pleased to meet you, I'm sure."
“You’re from America,” we said brightly.
“Alberta, Canada,” he answered. "That's some country, you bet."
Happy is the land that has no history.
Except for the great exodus, few miseries seem to have fallen on Sainte-Croix, and it is now sunk in a peace as profound as it enjoyed during the Carthusian days. And they did themselves pretty well, those old Carthusians. Twelve monks and a prior spread their elbows in the space where now thirty families live. Each monk's cell was big enough to make a whole cottage, for the word ' cell' comprised at least two good rooms, a gallery, attics serving for store-rooms or workshops, and a garden.
There was a large tree in the middle of the first courtyard, and under it we sheltered our ' wardrobe,' for the humble hotel lacked a garage. A long corridor passing in front of the church led to the inner court, which formerly was surrounded by a fine cloister, recorded in an old engraving. But the inhabitants, preferring light inside their houses to antiquity outside, had pulled it down. And who can blame them? There is little evidence that the cloister of Sainte-Croix was a masterpiece. The monastery owes its charm to situation and mass rather than to fine building, the master-builder selected on the visionary system being no Wren. So, considering the number of Monuments historiques scattered about France (on this one trip alone we passed a hundred and fifty-four), we can sympathize with the villagers. The preservation of this antiquity would bring a lot of bother on their heads and the intrusion of curious tourists, from whom only the innkeeper or the picture-postcard merchant would draw adequate gains. And probably those two were already among the richest in the village.
But though Sainte-Croix might look humble it was not poor. All those families living in the old cells had lands. On the far side of the valley the vines grew luxuriantly, while over the barren slopes that we had passed cattle or sheep could wander in herds under the charge of a lad who whiled away his time with a country pipe or a girl who used only her song.
At Sainte-Croix we first noticed a peculiarity often repeated in the South, that the clock seemed unsatisfied with chiming the hour once, but rang it over again, so that there should be no possibility of a mistake. This was a nuisance at night, for the church tower almost looked in at our bedroom window, and the chimes boomed out twenty-four for twelve. Our sleep was usually intermittent till the less excessive hour of one. But in the morning the fourteen strokes that told seven did help to shock us from our slumber.
At a table outside in the sun were waiting the large hemispherical bowls and the dessert spoons suitable for our morning cafe au lait. Having filled up the bowls, the sister-in-law maid rested a huge loaf against her tummy and sawed off generous slices of brownish bread. Sainte-Croix must have broken the record for large loaves. They measured at least twenty inches across and weighed more than twenty pounds.
The baker's shop was placed on a slope over against the cafe, one of the few houses added outside the old monastery.
We could watch the continual bread traffic. Small girls would stagger by, so weighted that the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty ought to have been on the spot; farmers would drive up, and a few loaves on top of their carts made the springs sag visibly; women bore them home on their heads or strapped them precariously to bicycle carriers; a stout villager sometimes took three pick-a-back and crept away looking like a rural Sisyphus. Most of this bread was home-grown. The peasants took their own grain to the miller, from the miller they took the flour to the baker, receiving for every eighteen pounds of flour twenty pounds of bread. The smaller villages dotted about in the hills pooled their weekly flour supply, and in turn one of the men came down to arrange the baking. "Ha! it's nice to eat one's own wheat," they said.
But we wondered privately whether the baker really made and baked each farmer's or each village's dough separately. Did he mark it in the oven so that each could be absolutely certain that he was eating his own bread? Or was it merely another of life's little ironies?
The reason for the ample bowls and spoons for breakfast was that the morning repast should not be a drink and chew, as we made it, but a slop and suck. The Frenchman makes a kind of bread-and-milk mess, probably inherited from the days of infrequent baking and degraded teeth. But he has the talent of making a delicacy out of a necessity, and the sloppy meal has persisted. It is now beginning to die out. In Paris the sandwich—a sliced, buttered roll interleaved with ham—is coming into favour, though from ancient habit many soak their ' sandveech,' butter, ham, and all, in their coffee bowls!!!
The gastronomic map gives us “artichoke hearts with foies gras " and “ potatoes fried with onions” as the culinary specialities. The first, however, belongs to a richer cuisine than we could expect for twenty francs daily. Not that we criticize. We had only peasant food, true, but it was excellent. The soupe neither lacked flavour nor exuded grease, the ragofits were succulent, the wine was a splendid local petit vin served in three-quarter litre bottles called pots stephanois, or Stephen's pots, the traditional measure of Saint-Etienne. But they put two bottles on the table, and refilled them at once if empty.
Not, mind you, that our cook, the lean wife of the patron, would have been incapable of serving artichoke hearts with foies gras. Upstairs was a large banqueting-hall in which farmers' associations, societies of wine cultivators, or beanfeast excursions sometimes held high revel. On such occasions she would probably produce dainties that would astonish you. It is difficult to realize that the culinary culture of the French appears instinctive to all classes. But twenty francs tout compris didn't get us artichoke hearts.
Another reservation we found. On the first morning we hopped from bed, seized our paint-boxes, and set out. As Jo was sketching the old monastery one old man looked over her shoulder and reflected aloud:
“Now isn't that odd? You wouldn't think it was nice till you see it made into pictures. Then you realize that although none of it has been altered it looks quite fine.”
In the evening, returning to our room after supper, we found it exactly as we had left it in the morning. The bed was unmade, nothing had been touched. We were supposed to be our own housemaids. This was the simplest kind of lodging, called logis garni, we found in France, but evidently the proprietors thought nothing of the business; they never mentioned it to us, nor we to them. We took our twenty francs' worth, and were amused by the very slight inconvenience.
The people of Sainte-Croix were not poor, for they had made the best of a bad thing. We could only wonder that the hotel, simple as it was, could be so cheap. For there below, only seven curly miles away, was the packed valley of Saint-Etienne and its neighbours. They bought everything Sainte-Croix could grow. Saint-Etienne also took many of its outings in this direction, for it lay on a road that made a round trip to the famous Mont Pilate.
One such passing auto opened our eyes to the amazing vocabulary that the French have in use. The chickens of the ex-Canadian used the road before the broad monastery front, learning there the new lore of mechanisms and the art of dodging that poultry of thirty years ago never needed. One chicken, however, missed its step. Nobody bothered to throw the small corpse from the middle of the road, but at last another chicken, with hungry and inquisitive eye spotting its late brother, investigated and found him appetizing.
“Tiens, regardez-moi ça!” cried the Canadian's son, aged twelve; “he’s a true anthropophage."
Yet the nearness of Saint-Etienne had not altered the rustic quality of Sainte-Croix. The Canadian had realized the commercial advantage of mechanisms and owned the local motor-lorry. He had been more influenced by America than are most French emigrants, but then he had a natural careless roughness that might seem almost inherently transatlantic with even a very thin veneer of the actual American.
He and his wife were odd contrasts. In the country it is often easier to judge a man's position by his wife’s hands rather than by his own. In this case the wife exhaled a suspicion of superiority which suggested that he must really have done well for himself. He spoke a fair English, but she, in spite of several years spent in Canada, had learned none. The reason was amusing.
“My wife she doan' wan' learn dat English speech,” he confided to us. “She’s 'fraid ef she learn dat English she woan' never come beck France. An dat's fonny too, 'cause she laak Canada better'n here, 'cause I doan get drunk there, see? Still, it's purty cole in Alberta, mister. I tell you I stay two year there firs', than I come back marry her. But you bet I doan' tell her what it laak over there for cole, or she never marry me 'tall, see, mister? "
Two features other than the chimes united Sainte-Croix to the South. The first was the sensuous baby love, that in Spain becomes quite a vice. The second was the elaboration of the head-dress used on the oxen of the farm-carts. A review of all the head-dresses of oxen might provide material for a most interesting monograph. Here the head-dresses were clearly utilitarian, but the utilitarianism had shaped itself into a kind of beauty that in Spain develops into high coloured crowns, like that of a Russian bride, while in Portugal it assumes the shape of tall carved and gilded wooden screens, like an Elizabethan lady's ruff.
But Sainte-Croix was still, properly speaking, Northern, because of its fond de cuisine.
“Oh, you are going south,” said the patronne to us. “I could never go there, they cook in oil. That gives me the horrors.”
La patronne was an odd-looking woman. Lean and dark, in her gloomy, semi-subterranean Gothic kitchen she often seemed like a wild, cave-dwelling gipsy. Properly dressed she might have been even romantically beautiful. But the peasant matron's creed seems to be that she must attract no longer. The peasant female insists on caricaturing the fashions of five years ago modified by the conventions of twenty years back. A suggestion that womanly beauty should be recognized or enhanced by dress would only invite the satiric comment of her peers, either male or female. A modern Cornelia, the French peasant woman should proudly hold out her savings-bank book and say: “This is my beauty.” Even in appraising maidenhood the strong arm and the lusty figure are admired before facial attractions. Sainte-Croix goes seldom to the movies, and the movies come even more seldom to Sainte-Croix, to stir up feminine standards, so that as yet stout arms and sturdy hips out value dentistry and limpid eyes.
Yet, queerly enough, even the peasant woman talks about dress as if she imagined that she were trying to beautify herself.
Mme de Sevigne and the truffle hounds
Grignan and Malaucene
From Sainte-Croix we began to climb the flanks of Mont Pilate. Suddenly, turning a corner, we saw the whole expanse of mountains beyond the Rhone. To our left were the high cliffs of Condrieu, with its marvellous vineyards of Les Cotes-Roties. But before us the mountains of the Isere culminated in the mighty Alps themselves, hanging over the mass of the Great Chartreuse. Glaciers feigned to be clouds, and clouds imitated glaciers; the impermanent and the solid blended in a thousand shades of tone and colour, exquisite though dilute, like shadows on opalescent water. The scene was flooded by a strange blond light, the burning light of the Southern sun, the true complexion of which you may never realize unless you chance to come upon it suddenly out of the North. Seen in this way, it was at once real and yet unreal; the trees far beyond the Rhone stood out with startling clarity, but seemed as if cut from tinted paper. Their reality was like the reality of a brilliant ' panorama,' in which real foreground and painted back melted together so cunningly that the Victorian crowds spent ungrudged shillings to be mystified and enchanted. It was, if one may say so, the proscenium of the South, frankly and astonishingly theatrical, but here making what seemed like illusion out of reality rather than a sham reality out of illusion.
The Rhone is a rapid river. Le Rire published a joke about it that very week. A riverside man was talking to an amateur sailor.
"Rapid is it?" he was saying. "I tell you, monsieur, if you started to go to Avignon your wake would get there three hours before you did."
A poor joke you may object. But jokes are national in flavour. Some time ago Jo was reading Freud's Wit in relation to the Unconscious. "What do you think of this?” she kept on saying. “Here’s a joke that old Freud says must absolutely and inevitably make you scream with laughter.”
Then she would read out some flat-footed piece of Germanic professorial humour, which did a little invalidate the authority of Freud's argument.
The joke of Le Rire, with its exaggeration, portrays a type, the Rhoneside dweller. In Tartarin of Tarascon the English usually miss the fun. We take sport seriously, in which case Tartarin becomes an impossible ass. But in truth Tartarin is three-quarters portrait; once we knew a Southern sportsman who, infuriated at returning home without anything in his game-bag, shot his neighbour's cock. Tartarin is high caricature, but often a caricature does not seem funny till you have known the original. This is, however, a digression. Its proper place should be at Tarascon, a hundred miles farther south, Tarascon dozing in its sun-spotted boulevards. . . .
Coming to a small village by the rapid Rhone, we found ourselves in a local fete and the remains of an ancient sport. First we heard the band ; rounding a corner, we almost ran into a group of laughing lads pushing a hand-cart on which, precariously balanced, stood another youth drenched to the skin. He waved a long pole at us, and we clapped on the brakes.
Farther down the street more youths were hauling a rope taut across the street about twelve feet from the ground. Hanging to the rope was a tub, from which water still dripped, and fixed to the tub was a board pierced with a hole. It was a modern version of tilting at the quintain.
The war-horse was no more than the push-cart running on the asphalted road. The tilter had to keep his balance on the cart and aim with his lance at the hole in the board. In the old sort of quintain a sandbag or a wooden sword slung round and knocked you off the horse; in this one if you hit the board you got a dousing. But if you could get the lance through the hole you gave your pushers the bath. From the sides of the road the pretty maidens encouraged the young champions with their smiles, just as they used to smile across the lists. There isn't so much difference between the twelfth and the twentieth centuries, except that the young ladies of nowadays are cleaner. They don't need books of etiquette to instruct them that they mustn't clean their teeth on the tablecloth or spit across the table.
At Valence-sur-Rhone we met the Germans. We first saw them coming up the boulevard from the river. The westerning sun was behind. They were both dressed in cerulean blue from neck to ankles; the light was shining through their short, yellow, uncovered hair, which floated like aureoles round their almost translucent faces; their feet were in yellow sand-shoes, but might have been shod with gold. Among that city population dressed in black and white they looked for a moment like a celestial visitation floating up the street, a pair of heavenly twins.
For a moment we wondered whether they could possibly be English, but they wore an air of conscious efficiency. Besides, the woman, like the man, wore cerulean trousers drawn in at the ankles, and few Englishwomen would have the courage—or egoism of her comfort—to wear cerulean trousers quite unselfconsciously in a foreign town.
Then we saw that they, like ourselves, were drifting in search of a cheap hotel. At the door of a lodging-house we came together, and as they had only a few words of French Jo tried to help them out, but the bemoithered woman insisted on trying to offer us a bedroom for four people, and we gave up the attempt.
Their costume was after all no more than the normal town-going dress of canoeing Germans. In the canoe itself they would strip to swimming costume. They had canoed down from the Alps on a hasty holiday, and from Marseilles would go back by train. But they could not loiter with us now, explaining that after snatching a meal and bed they must leave first thing in the morning.
We were tempted to wonder what they were getting out of it. There is, perhaps, no surer way of passing through a country without coming in contact with it than by boat, especially if one goes downstream. Upstream, things may happen, but down one only drifts with the current. The mere frictionless speed of your passage carries everything past like a dream. If in your boating enthusiasm you persist till the last thing at night and start first thing in the morning . . . well, what do you get out of it except mere extended motion and space covered? Quantity against Quality once more, but, oh! so efficiently carried out.
Behind us as we had been talking to the Germans was a small restaurant half underground. A couple of motos were stalled against the kerb, and our odd outfit excited the curiosity of the aperitif drinkers, a batch of youths ranging from twenty to twenty-five years old.
“Charge, hein?” one said, slapping the tarpaulin that covered the wardrobe's load. Two or three others bent to examine the engine, they analysed the controls, and, with permission, tried the horn.
“English machine, good,” they said, “lighter steel than we can manufacture.”
One called to us:
“He, la! You are unswollen."
Sure enough, the tire of the side-car was just flat. In a minute one of the boys had plucked from the cover a nail of an ox-shoe, like a big, vicious drawing-pin. “There’s the criminal!” he exclaimed.
“Don’t you worry, m'sieur-dame," they said to us. “You go in and have your supper. We'll soon fix it for you. Got a repair outfit?”
While we supped in the little semi-cavernous restaurant the cheery lads mended our tire, delighted at the opportunity of meddling with a new type of machine.
They would accept no more than a drink for their trouble. So we sat on discussing international football, a subject of which we knew but little. However, by holding our tongues and by saying “Peut-etre!” at intervals we survived the ordeal. It seems that the English had refused to play with the French because they were too rough. Opinions were divided on the question.
“It’s this way,” cried one; “the English want to play like gentlemen; the French want to win at any price."
“That’s it,” cried another. “That’s life, that is. You must win first, then after you have won you can start discussing whether you played like a gentleman or no.”
“But that's just what we complained about the Boches in the War,” I hinted.
“Eh, bien, you are right too, m'sieur. But do you see, if the dirty Boches had won, as they nearly did, precious little good it would have been saying after that they didn't fight like gentlemen. I'll tell you one thing plainly. One cannot be a gentleman in life and survive. Voila! "
“Tant pis pour la vie" I said.
“Ah, but that,” he expostulated, “is another subject altogether. We aren't now talking of ideals. . . .”
They directed us to a cheap hotel near the station. In the cafe opposite a radio loud-speaker ‘pick-up’ brayed us to sleep. On the bedroom floor lay some queer objects, small carpets the size and shape of feet; our only explanation was that on them one could place the feet and so slither across the chilly tiled floor. We slithered to bed.
Montelimar is famous all over France for its nougat. The prize pig at the fair of Pont-sur-Yonne was made of nougat de Montelimar. So Montelimar is full of nougat-shops, oddly bridal, first-communiony, virginal, which suggest any amount of purity for Montelimar nougat. And yet—dare we whisper it?—the nougat isn't really thrilling. It tastes just as if it had been invented for sale at fairs. It is in a way rather like a pious but passionate virgin: very hard to get round at first, but, as it warms, breaking down with surprising suddenness, and then almost overwhelming with a surfeit of sweetness.
Even on our gastronomic map Montelimar is labelled in capitals LE NOUGHAT. If this were America the bridge over the Rhone would bear in huge letters the slogan: WELCOME TO THE NOUGAT CITY. And if the present pace of Americanization proceeds in France we may not see many years before it is so labelled.
In Montelimar we came on evidences of the homogeneity of the French Empire. The town was garrisoned by Chinese-Annamese troops. They were marching round the town as we rode in. Their regimental band was indescribably weird, with squealing pipes and strange drum-taps.
“They are charming, the Chinese soldiers," said the cafe waitress to Jo. “They are so gentle, so shy and soft-spoken, like women. And they make the daintiest and most delicate things with their fingers. Not at all like the Moroccans whom we had here last. Ah! those for instance. Mouchards! And when they had drunk a bit, oh, Ia la! Not good comrades, I assure you. ..."
Then at Grignan we hit on another aspect of the French national problem. It came about in this way.
We had decided to sleep for the night in the shadow of the Chateau de Grignan, paying a tribute to the ashes of Mme de Sevigne, as Scott advises all travellers to do. The lavender-scented road from Montelimar had this advantage, that it hid the chateau till the last moment. Then a sudden turn of the road and, voila!
Sharp against the sky the chateau stands on its massive hill with one foot on the church, which in turn, built half-way up the slope, spurns the clustering cottages below, a complete symbol of the social structure which, almost a hundred years after the marquise's death, was to be so violently destroyed.
Below the church Mme de Sevigne was laid to rest, but she was not allowed to rest very long. Her tomb was violated by men looking for lead with which to make republican bullets.
The compte rendu by M. Deves is a curious document of the times.
A certain Fournier, bricklayer's workman of the district, lifted the stone over the vault. Three or four workmen present went down into this retreat of death and broke up the coffins in order to take the lead, which was sent by the municipality to Montelimar. Among these coffins that of Mme de Sevigne was recognized in spite of the quicklime which covered the remains her brocade dress was almost intact. M. Pialle-Champie, justice of the peace, who was present, had the cranium of the celebrated Marquise sawn off, and the upper part was sent to a school in Paris, so that her cerebellum might be studied. M. Pialle also had one of the teeth of Mme de Sevigne handed to him, and this tooth, set in a gold ring, was given to Mme Cordoue de Tain.
M. Veyrenc, one of the eyewitnesses of the exhumation of Mme de Sevigne, to whom was given a small piece of one of the ribs of this celebrated woman, had it placed in a glazed frame, and added underneath the following quatrain :
Of all her beauty naught but this sad bone, for fate has treated her with small respect. Still, though all passes, may we not suspect her spirit shall survive when these dire days are gone.
In 1870 the tomb was opened once more. A little later the top of the skull, recovered from Paris, was piously replaced, “in the presence of many persons worthy of trust.”
Mme Fontaine, present owner of the chateau, had it restored to nearly what it was in the days of the marquise. “Vandalism” cry some, and yet. . . . . Of ruins surely there are enough in France. There is little beauty in shattered walls except the beauty of chance and decay, a sentimental beauty, not of great value to many except the painter in water-colours. It may be objected that the restoration of a chateau not remarkable for its architectural art was hardly worth the expense. Still, on its imposing mount, the Chateau of Grignan does dominate the
landscape finely with its sheer mass. Ruder ages might not have hesitated to pull down the old walls and try once again, making a new Chateau de Grignan, taking conscious advantage of its noble site, and forgetting the heavy barrack that sheltered the last of the Adhémars. Then what a howl there would have been—something worth listening to.
We passed up under the old belfry and turned down the hill. In the middle of a leafy avenue we found, backed against the cliff, a small hotel. On a cement terrasse a few men were drinking aperitifs, and a young dog was gambolling round some green-tubbed plants. Backed as it was against the rock, the place had a dark and gloomy look, as though it were but the false front of a set of cave-dwellings. Inside, the kitchen and the dining-room seemed as though they had been scooped out of darkness, fitting backgrounds for Rembrandtesque compositions. A woman admitted that there were rooms, and named the price as ten francs.
“But you'll only get simple household cooking,” she said almost defiantly.
We assured her that we wished for no more.
On the terrasse, as we sipped our aperitifs, an old man, owner of the dog, Bandit, to which he had taught one or two amusing but vulgar tricks, canine slanders on the Parisian, greeted us with light mockery. He was a rather striking figure, with grey locks and long moustaches. We were just deducing from his manner that he must be the patron when a young man, black-haired and swarthy as a stage pirate, strode across the cement, scowled at the old man, leaped up the steps, dashed through a curtain of beads that hung before the door, yelled for the woman, held a furious argument with her in patois, tore another opening in the bead curtain, through which he scowled at us, strode down the steps, and, standing truculently before me, said in an aggressive voice:
“The girl has made a mistake—the room is fifteen francs.”
“How much are the meals then?” I said.
“And the machine?”
“You can put her in the garage over there.”
“Any fee for that?”
He turned away as if he were sorry we had decided to stop.
“Odd host at Grignan,” I muttered to Jo.
We began to deduce that the old man must be the father-in-law; but soon he got up, like a long, loosely jointed wooden figure, saying he must go to his supper, and stalked off down the hill. Soon he was back again, and as we sat down to our meal appeared at the dining-room door, where he stood staring at us.
“Odd clients at Grignan too,” said Jo to me.
At a table back in the shadows of the room six workmen were supping noisily. The dark-faced -patron, a napkin over his arm, served the soup with a flourish. His evil humour had gone, and he showed a servile dexterity unusual in a country pub-keeper.
“Surely you aren't French?” we said.
“Non, m'sieur, Italian,” he answered.
He served the omelette with an odd air of expectancy. Something, we felt, was going to be revealed as we opened that omelette. It was fine and fat; under the spoon it burst, displaying its golden interior speckled with black.
“Truffles, ye gods!” we ejaculated. “So this is only plain household cooking.”
“It is good?” asked the patron eagerly. "Ha! my own truffles, you understand.”
He was induced easily to talk about truffles. While he was talking we could hardly believe that this was the man who had given us so cavalier a welcome. Surely a Jekyll and Hyde combination lurked behind his dark face.
He talked of the strange, uncultivable truffle, that weird, fungus, botanic mystery which haunts the roots of the truffle oak as the pilot-fish accompanies the shark, apparently unattached by any bond other than that of abstract affection, if so unresponsive a vegetable as the truffle can be said to contain so complex a passion.
“It is with dogs, m'sieur-dame, that we capture them,” said the Italian.
For the mysterious truffle, vegetable though it be, is rather an object of the chase than of agriculture. It is the gipsy among plants, betrayed only by passion. Nobody has ever succeeded in taming the truffle; no bed, however cunningly prepared, will tempt it to breed in a garden. You can only plant truffle oaks and trust to luck. Even then, lurking underground, having no roots, having no vanity to wave flowers or leaves in the upper air, small chance would it have of being captured were it not for the scent. No, it is an object of the chase, like a fox or hare; put the truffle dogs on its track, and it has as little chance of escaping as a slave from bloodhounds.
"We do it thus," said our Italian mentor. "First we give the dog when young a taste for truffles, feeding him with unwanted scraps to awaken his desires. After that it becomes a passion, a veritable passion. The dog will scent out a truffle no matter how deep it lies underground. He will dig it up with his paws. Then we take it from him, m'sieur-dame, and reward him with a small piece of meat."
Reward him with a small piece of meat? Miserable beast of a truffle dog! For, only think. First we awaken his passion; then we lead the poor wretch to within smelling distance of the precious object, and even as the satisfaction of desire lies unearthed between his paws we snatch it away. Sisyphus was not more tortured than these sad truffle hounds. We cannot say with Keats:
Though winning near the goal—yet, do not grieve; She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss.
This is no passive play like that of the lover on the urn; hot passion, wickedly stimulated to its highest point, is robbed of its reward while even the fruity odours of that sweet succulence fill the nostrils. And in the miserable end he must be content with a mere piece of gulped meat. Yet, like crazy alchemists after the philosopher's stone, no failure can damp the truffle dog's ardour. “Next time,” he thinks, and follows with undiminished enthusiasm the thin wisp of hope.
“Ah, yes, m’sieur" went on the Italian, “I am an expert in the truffle. I buy them, deal in them, and preserve them. In buying one must be very cautious. There is much roguery in the truffle market. One must see, now, that not too much earth is left on the fruit, for with truffles at two hundred francs a kilo one does not want to pay for earth. Is that not so? Then, m'sieur, we place them in the tins, with a pinch of salt and some rum. We heat them; as they shrink the tin must be filled up. We add more salt afterward, and at last seal the tin. When you open the tin you must use the truffles at once. . . .
“Terribly dear, yes; believe me that last year truffles were costing two hundred and fifty francs a kilo, in fact, so dear that there was no pleasure in eating them.” His voice lowered from a querulous to a religious note. “It was like eating money, no less.”
“But now they are cheaper. One hundred and eighty. At that price we can do business. And I'd be very well situated here, but I've had a most unfortunate affair. You see, m'sieur, when I took this place I was married. And what with the hotel, and what with the truffles, I was doing very well. But she was a woman without solidity. French, yes. But she had no desire to work. I did my best to keep her contented, but no. And then at last"—he spread his hands—" she ran off with another fellow, and—will you credit it?—right in the middle of the truffle season!
His face suffused with dark blood, and he hit the table with his clenched fist. “Yes, bang in the middle of the truffle season!” Left me flat. Could you credit such cheek? Why, even her own brother, my beau-frere, has cast her off. But with a woman like that. . . . No loins, eh? What can you expect, I ask? I mean, it's simply incredible, right in the middle of the season. The traitress! I could have forgiven a lot, but not that; no, never, never. ...”
His face was black with rage, his hands quivering. With an effort he recovered himself and seemed to remember our coffee. I suggested that he should serve it on the terrasse,
With my voice I tried to hint the sympathy that could hardly be offered point-blank.
As we took our seats the dog Bandit reappeared.
“Is that a truffle dog?” we asked, with interest.
“Ah, no, m'sieur,” he said; “ it could not be allowed out alone if it were.”
For once a truffle hound always a truffle hound. A cocaine maniac is blood-brother to him. You cannot venture within shouting distance of somebody's else truffle-ground with a truffle-fiend dog. You risk instant arrest, or worse, for armed men guard the precious underground spoil. Our host told us that the truffle poacher wouldn't have a chance. But we aren't convinced of that. Put temptation in a man's way and you will always find men to succumb.
Once more the grey, lank old fellow returned, and stared at us oddly. At last, flicking his hand toward the hotel, he made us a hoarse confidence:
“That was mine, that was.”
“Mine, I say—that hotel. But my poor wife died, and I had to sacrifice it. A man without a wife can't keep an hotel.”
“Then what will the present man do?” we said.
“That wench! " he said. “A woman without interest. Do you know what I would do to all such? Scrag them. That's the only remedy.”
He turned and slowly climbed the steps, grey, silent in his carpet slippers, like an uneasy ghost unable to tear itself away from habitual haunts. We could imagine him hovering always at hand, silently critical, his whole demeanour saying: “In my time they didn't do it that way”; or: “My poor wife wouldn't have stood that kind of mess.”
No wonder the Italian looked at him with barely concealed annoyance.
But the problem of Grignan was not in reality that of the erring wife, but of the successful husband. He was an Italian, emblem of a new menace to the peace of Europe. We do not refer to the bellicose utterances of Mussolini, but to the fertility of the Italian women. It is all very well to talk of birth-control, as though by it all the problems of population and production could be solved. But here and now you have France with a low birth-rate and a comparatively high standard of living, while alongside is Italy with a high birth-rate and a low standard of living. What happens? Italy empties itself into France. Whole districts along the Italian frontiers are rapidly becoming Italianate. Not only in France does this occur: Poland is flooding North Germany; Mexico is invading south-western states; the white labourer cannot compete with the black in the Carolinas, and in Kenya we, with British philanthropy, have been educating the negroes to turn us out of their own country. If behind this seepage stands a strong national impulse the problem becomes not only perplexing but acute. Active invasion with weapons one may resist, but to repel this passive flood partakes of the folly of Mrs Partington.
Yet what is the solution? Should one submit to the more prolific competition, or should the birth-rate be stimulated, in a battle of the wombs, till the whole world is choked with surplus population? It is a contest of food which no amount of sentimentality will solve. But inevitably the guzzlers and wasters, even among nations, must in the end go. They cannot compete.
Stalking about Grignan later, we met the old Ghost and the dog. He invited us into his house. Strange contrast. You could hardly imagine a milder kind of man—one might even guess without much risk that what success he had in his hotel was due to the efforts of the dead wife—yet in this refuge for his latter days he had gathered a whole arsenal of weapons. Here was a true copy of Tartarin's sitting-room. Every kind of implement for spilling human blood was displayed. Lovingly he took them from the walls, fingering their cutting edges or squinting along their sights. Here he lived, teaching the innocent dog more naughty tricks and gloating over these implements of murder. Here in his solitude he probably dreamed himself into a hundred heroic situations, selecting one or other of the weapons to be the companion of his blood-stained imaginings.
And in actuality he was almost an Uncle Toby for mildness, almost capable of helping an intrusive fly out of the window. We said almost for he was French.
Next morning, as we were making out our registration papers, a tall policeman walked into the room. He picked up the form from the table and glanced over it.
“Ha!” said he," what's this? What is your occupation? "
“Artists,” I said.
“Are you making pictures in France, then?”
“Then show me your working cards.”
“Our working cards?”
“Of course. You know well that you are not allowed to work in France if you have no card stamped by the police.”
“But, monsieur, we are artists, and artists need no working card.”
“I have yet to learn it,” he grunted. “You work, therefore you must have a card.”
Imprisonment and fine were staring us in the face.
“But, monsieur L’agent------“
“It is the Chief of Police you are addressing, monsieur.”
“Pardon. But, monsieur le chef, we really do need no card. We are not salaried workers, we earn no wages. We belong to the liberal professions—like a lawyer or a doctor, for instance.”
The chef drew himself up and stared at us.
“Ha!” said he, “you surely don't imagine that you are the equal of a doctor, do you?”
We needed much eloquence to get out of the ridiculous situation.
By all the rules of dinner-table conversation we should now have gone southward to Orange. Anyone who reads this confession now has the right to look at us with dark reproach in his eye and say: “Oh, but you ought to have gone to Orange.” As a child I could never put much enthusiasm into the confession, “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done," because just round the corner lay a host of attractive things (not included in the categories of oughts or oughtn'ts), and there wasn't the time to do the oughts as well. Besides, as regards Orange—we have seen the Theatre of Dionysius behind the Acropolis.
So we steered on to Nyons and Vaison, and came at last to Malaucene, where nobody necessarily ought to go. Only there are no guide-books to tell you about Malaucene.
The road coming into Malaucene marches abreast with a broad promenade over which are massed four lines of lime-trees ; the road narrows to the village street, in which stand lime-trees with Roman columns of trunks, matting their foliage so thickly overhead that a deep, cool dusk pervades even on the hottest day. At the top of the rise is a great rectangular orange church, and over that a tall, upstanding pinnacle of rock, half spiralled with tall, funereal cypress-trees, leading to a forsaken Calvary. Backing the whole is the massive slope of Mont Ventoux, which raises itself for four thousand feet above; not a spectacular mountain, but leaning back on its flanks as though it were a little tired of its own immensity. About Malaucene there was a queer feeling of Titans—one could believe that those who had designed the appurtenances of the place had forgotten how small humans really are.
It was as remote from an ideal English village as a village possibly could be.
The patron of the small hotel had grown grey in the service of travellers.
“Twenty-five francs pension” he said; “but if you want a more copious table it will be thirty.”
An arbour of climbing roses separated the hotel from the place. In one corner was an old fountain under an octagonal roof of multicoloured tiles. When Malaucene was Roman this fountain should have been a shrine for the nymphs; now it is still a shrine for nymphs, but as a public lavoir. Standing on their portable platforms of wood, to keep their feet from getting muddy, the girls and women scrubbed and joked, for all as if a washing were fun. The evening warmth suited their rich Southern voices, ripe as Rhone wine, with a sweet huskiness that made us think of the rough redness of a peach. A persistent clicking, mingled with male cries, came from farther along the grand promenade, where a band of men were playing their peculiar bowls. Opposite, behind the tables spread before the cafe-tabac, a large notice announced a great competition of bowls for the following Sunday. But even these men's voices had been softened by the warmth; one seldom heard that rough, bullying note so common in the North.
Derelict on the table was a local newspaper. While sipping my aperitif I glanced lazily down its columns, surprised to note the wide importance of this game of bowls. A column was headed:
OUR GRAND SPORTING EVENTS XI.
concourse of bowls at nimes
Scarce three days separates us from this grandiose manifestation which year by year takes on more imposing proportions. . . .
A little later in the paper I found one of those perfect pieces of French journalism which makes one wonder what the French editor is like. This was headed:
AN INDELICATE MOTHER
It told the tale of a girl who had tried to rid herself of her illegitimate child, and concluded:
The young woman, whose conduct leaves much to be desired, put her child in a bucket, but it died of hunger.
That very evening, as we loitered with our cafes under the rose pergola, the grey-haired patron came and sat at our side, discussing his daughter's future.
"Ah, no, m'sieur-dame" he said, "I'm not going to let my daughter depend for her living on a man. Look what happens to husbands nowadays. For a nothing off they go with another woman. No stability in marriage nowadays. Marriage itself may be all right, hein? It's natural, quoi, not to mention the fun, compris? But it's not a serious occupation. My girl's going to be a teacher. That's the job. Look at it. Why, if she marries another teacher they'll have some thirty thousand francs a year between them. Cosy enough. One hundred and fifty days' work a year at six hours a day; lodged, heated, and laundered. Extra if you get kids. That's a soft thing, that is. But the examinations are hard. There are plenty of youngsters after jobs like that, you bet."
A few tables from us three men were talking over their petits verres. Suddenly one of them raised his voice.
“But,” he exclaimed clearly, “I'm telling you. In my time I've killed a man,”
“Eh, bien," retorted one of the others,” don't boast about it. Ce n'est pas negro joli."
And having thrown that piece of mystery into our pricked ears they subsided once more to an indistinguishable murmur. We gazed at this playboy. He had nothing to distinguish him from other men. How had it happened? Crime passionnel, with a damp-eyed jury to acquit him unanimously, war, or mere accident of the chase? He had killed his man, and so stood higher, in his own estimation, evidently, than other men. But these were no Irish peasants dominated by the dramatization of the unrealized.
Ce n'est pas joli, ce n’est pas joli. What can a man retort to that?
Next morning we climbed to the Calvary. Which is more typical of Southern nature, the piety that placed it there or the neglect that has allowed it to rot in place? Few modern pilgrims have stepped across the parched grass to kneel before the dead, pale, outstretched Christ, roughly carved in splitting wood. The glass front of the shrine has been broken, and the peeling paint, stripped by the weather from His chiselled cheeks, has lent them a doubled agony. All round the airy circle stand the Stations of the Cross, in small penthouses like dovecotes without fronts. At first glance the pictures seemed strangely modernized, blends of the Rue de Saint-Sulpice and the Salon d'Automne. But a closer scrutiny shows that the modernism is due to their most persistent worshippers, the ants, which have taken a fancy to some of the colours and there have gnawed the prints to lacework, cutting unexpected patterns into those once tawdry choreographs. That the prints still hang together might be counted almost a miracle, but one, we fear, that the Church will never claim.
Indeed, in that tiny area of sad neglect all that flourished was the circle of olive-trees, from which, we presume, the priest collects the fruit without fail. What can he do with it? Can one eat olives from a Calvary with the same gusto that children eat blackberries from a cemetery wall? Or perhaps he saves them for Passion Week. . . .
Over the rails and bushes that fringed the Calvary we could look across all Malaucene, which clustered round the foot. The Calvary stood not unlike a tall rock projecting from a ring of red, muddy waves, the pantile roofs of the village, that lay in ridges almost continuous, for the streets were very narrow. The lines between the tiles emphasized the low-pitched movement, and the lichens were as wrack floating on the frozen sea.
In one place, however, the big mass of the rectangular church stood. Its square tower looked almost like a factory chimney cut short. Simple, undecorated, how little seems to separate these Southern churches from a factory building; yet how much that little is. Down there, along the great blank wall of the church, was a long, low bench, where the old folk could gather and gossip on warm evenings. There would be few evenings in the year when they could not gather thus. Oh, the blessings of a warm climate!
Round the village stretched the rich, fruit-bearing lands of the Vaucluse. That afternoon Jo, sitting in the terrasse of the cafe-tabac, sketched an old man. He seemed a simple peasant grandfather, and, having spotted what Jo was at, came over, asking to see his likeness. It was not flattering, but he had the simplicity of the countryman. A portrait was a portrait. She had drawn him like that, so like that he must be. There could be no quarrelling with it. He seemed to feel no prick of injured vanity, but only a great delight at having been drawn at all. On the next day he came up to us with a basket full of peaches.
“Yours, madame,” he said, “for drawing my picture.”
Jo tried to protest politely. “Ah, no,” he exclaimed, “I have all the peaches I want. Yesterday I sold three thousand kilos of them, at three and a half francs a kilo. And they will go to England too.”
The host of the cafe-tabac also came up to see the drawing.
“That,” he explained to the people round, “is expertise. And”—he snapped his fingers together expressively— “plenty of that, what?”
“Not at all,” Jo protested; “nobody is buying art nowadays. Why, in Paris there are many artists starving.”
“Aye,” said the inn-keeper, suddenly serious; “yes, I have heard that too. And, for my part, I think that it is terrible. Mind, I have thought about these things a bit. voyez-vous, in what does a nation's wealth consist? Is it money? Is it goods? Look around you. What have we got left us from other centuries? What do we value? What do they collect in museums? What do they pay huge prices for at public sales? Eh? Art, nothing but art. Art, then, is the riches of a country. And yet they allow artists to starve. Is that just? It hurts me to think of it. Still, what will you? One can't alter things by thinking about them.”
We are tempted to believe that he had borrowed these ideas
wholesale from somebody else, adapting with a Southern quickness his subject to his audience. For later we found that he had been a soldier in the Balkans during the War, but never heard from him an opinion that indicated any originality of thought or observation. He had noticed only the price of sheep, and after that the prevalence of pigs. He hinted at one or two scandalous adventures with harem women, and once he had killed seventy-three fleas on one hand while writing a letter.
At Sainte-Croix la patronne had said that she would not travel south because she feared the oil. Here they asked us: "That does not disgust you, the oil cooking?” The arrogance of the butter cook and the humility of the oil user! According to an old German proverb: "What little Bauer don’t know little Bauer won't eat.” The same applies with equal force to the rich tourist. And as the rich tourist has generally flowed from the North southward the oil cook has got a touch of the inferiority complex. A Spanish proverb says: “The foolish sayings of the rich pass for wise maxims.”
To our own taste nothing can beat really good oil cooking, but beware of trying to demand butter in an oil region. It can end only in tragedy. Our host here had a bar in Paris, and his wife tried to provide us with butter. But it was faintly rancid, as it almost always is where the true tenderness for butter has not been bred.
The game of bowls as played in France differs a lot from that played in England. We have expensive lawns carefully prepared; rolled, shampooed, and re-rolled; great bowls of hard wood cunningly biassed, and a slow coily skill that outmanoeuvres the opponent's. But French bowls is almost a dashing and impulsive game. The ground anywhere hard enough is swept of its loose stones; accidentals in the surface test the eye and the judgment. Its tools are balls of wood into which hobnails have been hammered — ironed bowls, they call them. Crouching low, the player casts his bowl into the air from under his hand, so giving it a backward spin that drops it as dead as possible near the small object ball. Some of the bowlers throw so high that the ball comes down almost vertically. After the first bowlers have cast the knockers-out come. These use smaller, heavier bowls, and their task is to banish any intruding opponent within competing distance. Astonishing shots some of these players are. At ten or twelve yards their ball will pitch plumb on to an opponent's, knocking it flying and settling down solidly in the place. It is a most amusing poor man's game, needing no prepared surface and but little room. And, as we are writing this, we ask ourselves: is there in England a single simple out-of-door game for the poor?
GORDES and L' Hotel Renaissence and the red village of Roussillon.
We had asked the commercial traveller if in his wanderings had found any place peculiarly interesting to visit.
“Of what nature?” He asked. “If you wish for monuments…”
We hastily assured him we did not. "Well, then, what about cooking?”
“Cooking is certainly interesting, but "
“Go to Gordes," he said.
“But is Gordes otherwise interesting?”
“It has a Renaissance chateau that merits the visit."
“But the landscape," we persisted. “The village itself,
for example. ..."
“And how would you have a village interesting?”
“That is difficult to say. A village of character. Accidented.
One of those villages set on a conical hill, for instance. . . ." “But,” he cried, “that is the very village I am telling you about! Gordes. Precisely, on a hill. And go to the Hotel Renaissance. Ah! that, for instance. In all my round I know no cooking to equal that. A marvel. And cheap. By the way, do not neglect to visit the Fountain of Vaucluse.”
“Is that a monument?” we asked suspiciously.
“A monument? Pas du tout " he answered indignantly. Why, have you never heard of Petrarch?”
“Eh, bien! ca y est."
The memory snapped back. Of course. Petrarch and Laura, Avignon, Vaucluse. Somehow we hadn't realized that we were just there.
Carpentras, with its great hollow towers, has also memories of Petrarch, but we pressed on, for we had started late.
A few hours later, looking up from the Route Nationale No. 100, we saw Gordes two miles away. It seemed a queer place, perched right against the sky, on the top of a long hill.
“Doesn’t look very paintable,” we said. “Anyway, we will have a go at the cooking.”
The road climbed. The olive groves came to meet us, twisted trees set in lines on the brown earth, and among the groves strange huts of cyclopean stone, like irregular pyramids. At last we reached the ridge of the hill on which we had imagined Gordes to be perched. We gave a cry of astonishment.
Our commercial traveller had certainly not led us astray. Between us and the village a deep valley lay, and right before us, shining in the afternoon light, Gordes was piled all round a tall sugar-loaf of a hill that plunged down into the valley on three sides. At the very apex stood the massive, machicolated towers of the Renaissance castle. What we had seen from the lower road was only the top of Gordes peeping at us from over the crest of the intervening hill.
“Gordes,” we said to ourselves, “is all right.”
Past the gendarmerie and the post-office we came into an open place where, under the towering walls of the chateau, stood a humble monument, the conventional monument served out to a third of the French villages, a stiffly posed stone poilu, commemorating the sacrifices of Gordes during the War. The poilu stood at rigid attention before an immense plain shading by distances of blue to far mountains. Round the castle, and through a passage just wide enough to pass a motor, we reached an interior place, the heart of Gordes. On one side the massive castle loomed high, on another a big church rose from the hillside, on the third were shops set over arches that led steeply downhill, on the fourth was a terrasse, pleasant with oleanders in tubs, behind which was the small hotel.
To be frank, it did not look at all like a temple of epicureanism. It was without character, and might have been transported from some back street of Paris. While a maid served an aperitif to us a pleasant, middle-aged woman watched with the calm, tempered curiosity of one who has seen many varieties of tourist in her time.
“Could it be possible to stay?” we asked.
“Unfortunately we have no room,” answered the woman.
“Just our luck,” we thought. “We wished to stay for some time,” we said aloud.
“Ah! that makes a difference. The monsieur is departing to-morrow. If you do not mind for one night I could find another room perhaps outside."
“And how much will it be?”
“Twenty-five francs a day,” she said; and then added: “It cannot be considered at all dear for what you will get. My husband is a really remarkable cook.”
“So we have been informed.”
"And why not?" she said complacently. “We are sufficiently well known as far as Marseilles. Sometimes in the season we serve as many as a hundred and fifty guests in a day. Go and see,” she said to the maid, “whether the postman's room is free.”
Soon the maid returned, followed by a bright-eyed little girl of nine.
“But yes, but yes," said the child eagerly. “Only it is not precisely prepared.”
“Don’t worry,” said the patronne to us. “She will look after you well. Her mother is in bed now with her seventh. For a postman that is enough family, so they like to make a bit on the side if they can. Anyhow, you had better have your meal now. You can go across later.”
Before we had finished our aperitifs we saw the willing little girl staggering across the tiny place under a load of sheets and pillow-cases.
The dining-room was dark, and promised little; the oil-clothed tables stood in two rows. A maid brought in the soup-tureen and served us.
One spoonful. Ah!
Can one hope to convey the moment of surprised ecstasy when, expecting no more than the fairly good, we found instead a true touch of genius? Toast soup. Should one really be ecstatic over a mouthful of toast soup? The subtle, enchanting flavour spread down all my nerves of taste until, like Keats' old Beadsman, I felt " flattered to tears." Nothing afterward could match that first magic moment. That plateful of glorious soup had to be consumed, but the subsequent spoonfuls were no more than affirmations of the first; the senses responded with delight, but not with surprised ecstasy. Truite meuniere. “From the Fountain of Vaucluse,” murmured la patronne. We were supping with Petrarch, though Petrarch never supped so daintily, I'll be bound. They used to eat peacocks flavoured with ambergris in his day. Lamb cutlets and escarole salad—ah! but what a dressing—custard and biscuits, but the custard was a revelation in custard-making, more soothing than the creamy curd, raised by what art above the custard class, perfection of simplicity, which of all is the most difficult to achieve.
"And madame and monsieur, are they satisfied?” asked the patronne.
“Satisfied?” we cried. “Madame, it was a meal for the gods! Your husband is a genius.”
“I am pleased,” said the patronne; “but, after all, my husband was cook to the Prince of Monaco.”
“Will you remit our thanks to monsieur your husband?”
“Delighted,” she said, bowing.
As we took our coffee outside, in the balmy air, monsieur himself, clad in white jacket and trousers and tall white cap,appeared through the bead hangings of his front door like a ghost, and bowed ceremoniously to us.
“Cook to the Prince of Monaco and to the Turf Club, Cairo," said our host. “Ah, yes, I have cooked for the English, and there were some who knew how to eat with distinction.”
“But why," we asked him,” did you hide yourself here in so small a place?”
“Oh, as for hidden" said the patron, “one is not so hidden as all that. If one serves a good table one is not long in finding clients. Indeed, I have as many as I ask for— one hundred and fifty converts on some Sundays. They come a hundred kilometres, two hundred, even from Paris, to dine here. And I have good interest. Monsieur Leon Daudet, for example, or Monsieur Tardieu, they have recommended me. No, one is not so bad here. And then, between, one has one's tranquillity. One is master at home, quoi? Besides, this is my native country. Ah, no, one is not so bad. Well, good night, M'sieur-dame; et merci”
He disappeared through the hanging beads that clinked before the door.
A maid led us across the place to our lodgings. Plunging down steps, we came into a dim, underground, whitewashed room, where the small child welcomed us by the light of a single candle. Lit by this she led us up a spiral staircase that seemed to bore its way up through the house like a huge auger. First we passed a room in which men were feeding—as we climbed they tried to rise clumsily, like baboons; then we went past a bedroom, in which the new mother lay abed, a hunched mound under the blankets. At last we came to our room, where the child left us with the flickering candle. The room was large, whitewashed, and medieval. Petrarch himself wouldn't have been displeased with it, though the candle might have astonished him.
Gordes is a place whose usefulness has gone. Once it must have been of great importance, and even in comparatively recent times the population has shrunk from three or four thousand to a little over a thousand. It has faded on its precipitous hill, leaving only ruins as evidence. Tall fingers, blades and rectangles of wall, stand sliced by the weather into a hundred strange silhouettes; unglazed window-frames show like eyes, idiotically blue with the sky behind, or sinister and blank, looking out from deserted hearths where once prosperity was. You might almost imagine Gordes to be the victim of some cancerous falling-sickness, the houses crumbling over the heads of the wretched inhabitants, who merely wait passive till they shall all be driven out. At the top, massive as the rock on which it is built, the simple, stony mass of the four-square castle, with great, round towers at the corners, seems to defy the encroaching ruin, as of old it defied the threats of adversaries.
And here, incongruously, in the midst of all this degeneration, like the lump of ambergris in the head of a decaying whale, is the Hotel Renaissance, where for twenty-five francs a day, off ugly oilcloth, we lunched and dined like princes.
But do not imagine that the ex-chef of the Prince of Monaco lived on pensionnaires at twenty-five francs a day. To put it bluntly, we were the refuse-cans of his establishment. But then, ah! what refuse; the refuse of Paradise. Yet there were stages of blessedness, or—to descend from hyperbole—the hotel had three rooms, an inner, a middle, and an outer, and each fed from the table of the other. To the inner room were conducted ceremoniously all those motor epicureans who paid a la carte, from thirty to fifty francs a head and wine extra. They came seeking stuffed trout, preserve of game, spiced thrushes, and suchlike things. These the host consulted with deference, fondling a wine-list, and murmuring the sonorous names of magic vintages. There, under a gleaming still-life of peaches and grapes, painted with a fruity precision by an oily Academician, they dined on the dishes prepared in the huge kitchen by the ex-chef and his apprentices.
The state of a restaurant-keeper—especially in the country —might be compared to that of the Allies expecting a German attack. One may know it is coming, but not in what force. Our ex-chef might have fifteen guests, he might have thirty or forty. They rolled up, incontrollable as the clouds in the sky; but, many or few, they all had to be fed, and on the Prince of Monaco's best. Therefore, he was obliged to have reserves, and in case the reserve didn't get used up he had to have a reserve of guests to use it up. By a dispensation of Providence, like the one which turns the Parisian coal-merchants' boys into cafe-terrasse waiters during the summer months, the period of the greatest guest fluctuation at Gordes was also the period of summer boarders. So by taking in pensionnaires at twenty-five francs our chef cleverly disposed of his possible surplus without loss.
We fed on no resurrection-pie. We consumed the unused reserves. Another group after ourselves, a set of workmen who dined joyously in the outermost bar, swallowed the final re-hash. Still, we would bet that, even in France, few workmen dine as royally as at Gordes. And Lord knows how little they paid! Even an ex-chef of the Prince of Monaco throws away less than does the average London char. And, what is more important, everybody gains by his carefulness.
Our fellow-diners of the middle circle were assorted. There was an old bourgeoise, a Parisienne, who confided to Jo that she could not accustom herself to the modern idea if wearing coloured underclothes; there was her daughter, a solid type with the cold exterior that comes from living too long with mother, and of that suppressed hysterical basis hat comes from the same reason. There was a young local bureaucrat surrounded by a female family—wife, aunt, mother-in-law, sister-in-law, and so on; to all his women-folk very polite in action, but not in argument. There was a young, thick-set schoolmaster, and some others, with occasional commercials, making a round dozen or more second-hand epicures who clustered in that dingy dining-room, under a poster which advertised that to aid our digestions we must drink the liqueur of the monks of Senanaque.
The old Parisienne was typical of a localized Parisian: ne of those who hold fast to country ties. Even if born in Paris the parents often send the children back to their native village till they are nine or ten; the young men come back d the village for their brides; the man who has succeeded comes back to retire or to speculate in some country traffic, speeding it up to Parisian standards. They all spend their holidays economically at some relative's house. So these two, roman and daughter, though thorough Parigottes, were deep in the local life and gossip of Gordes. Monsieur le Registrar was our young, bureaucratic family man. So he, too, was well in the poetic swim. . . .
Perched on its towering hill, Gordes dominated the rich plain of Cavaillon and the valley of Apt. On the one side rose the wooded slope of the Mounts of Vaucluse, over which were hunted game of various kinds, as well as the equally elusive and gamey black truffle. The sportsmen would not gather until the autumn. Not until then would the papers begin to reserve a space daily for " Les accidents de la chasse" On the far side of the valley stood the steep, long ridge of the Mounts of Luberon, which, as the sun swung round, seemed to recede or advance so palpably across the plain that one could almost be persuaded that the mountain was at last coming to Mohammed, or at least playing " Nuts and May " with him.
In those grey-green valleys lying between was some of the richest land in France. It produced no less than five crops a year—such as asparagus, followed by peas, by eggplants, by tomatoes, and rounding off with cauliflower. Though the farmers and their wives might go about still dressed in almost peasant fashion they had their stockings full, or rather, as the stocking has gone out of fashion, their secretly hidden bundles of National Bonds.
Although our hotel looked so commonplace in front it had somehow become mixed up with stray parts of the castle behind. The immense kitchen, harbouring an equally immense kitchen-stove, looked as if it had once been a cut-down refectory. Then, passing a side-room, in which the •patronne usually sat, surrounded by almost every delicacy imaginable in the shape of hors-d'œuvres we, came to the stairs, twisting up the inside of an old turret. A short passage led to our room. Half-way along was the door leading into the maids' bedroom. There were three girls. Poor things, they had to crowd into a windowless place some seven feet by eleven, as near as we could judge. The ideal space-allowance per person is 3000 cubic feet, the lowest allowed by law in England is 300; these girls enjoyed no more than 20 apiece. . . . The lower classes of Europe have hardly as y graduated out of the Stone Age in sleeping accommodation Our own room was large, with two small windows, which looked over the roof-tops of Gordes toward the valley. The green-grey of the olive-trees dominated the view, broken where irrigation had flooded the fields with vivid green or where the newly cut wheat had left its long, golden scars. But in the evening, as the falling sun struck the colours to a heightened intensity, a strange mound, some six miles away, seemed to burn a startling orange. Indeed, we could almost believe that a huge red-hot meteor had fallen there and, three-quarters embedded, still showed its glowing top.
“That, monsieur?” said the baker, of whom I first asked information. “That is Roussillon, quoi?”
Roussillon. The name clanged in the memory. There was a Roussillon on the Pyrenean slopes, a land of rich, heavy wine that is responsible for one of the first mysterious advertisements which surprise the foreigner in France: BYRRH. But Roussillon, Provence? Ah, yes. Before the days of modern art, in the not-so-distant past, when Cezanne was called a brilliant incompetent and Matisse a mockery, one picture in the Musee du Luxembourg always shocked the average English visitor and put his teeth on edge. It was a vivid canvas of crude orange, spinach-green, and china-blue. The painter hadn't shilly-shallied about his colours : he got them pure from the tubes. And the French nation had bought the picture. It was called "Roussillon, Provence."
“But,” cried every nice English visitor who had just got used to Whistler, " that is sheerly hideous. It isn't possible."
Even now we are still of the opinion that it was not a good work of art—but impossible? No paint ever ground in a colour-maker's shop could equal the reality of Roussillon.
We went there by an odd accident.
One morning as we were taking our cafe au lait on the terrasse an old man crept up. As soon as he perceived me his face changed; an expression of delight spread over it, an d he staggered up, holding out a hand.
“A la bonne heure, m'sieur! “he cried. “I am delighted to see you." \\fondering whether he was an exaggerated kind of country joker, of whom many are reputed to exist in Provence, I stood up to take his hand.
“But this is wonderful!" he cried. “I hope you are well, m'sieur?”
“I am exceedingly well, I thank you,” I answered, determining to enter into the spirit of the thing. “I hope you are well yourself. And won't you have a drink with us?”
This offer seemed not only to surprise him, but to confuse him a little.
“If m'sieur is so kind,” he almost stammered, as though his pleasant jest had suddenly collapsed. With a hesitating hand he drew a chair to our table.
“This is so unexpected,” he murmured.
“Unexpected for me, too," I said;” and a pleasure.”
“I have come some way this morning . . ." he began, broke off, took a sip at his coffee, and made a fresh start. “Tiens! m'sieur, can I expose my case to you? It is this way. I live ten kilometres away, at Roussillon. Well, m'sieur, to get my pension I have to walk here, unless some kind neighbour gives me a lift, which one can't count on by any means. Then I must walk the ten kilometres back, too. Now, m'sieur, I am, as you see, an old man, eh? I haven't the strength, and that's a fact. Twenty kilometres at my age, and I am seventy-five, are tiring. Yes, m'sieur, I confess that when I get back in the evening I am completely done up. How much better it would be surely to have my pension paid to me at Roussillon itself! Would that not be reasonable, m'sieur? "
“Most reasonable, I should think,” I answered. “Indeed, it seems a great shame to expect you to walk twenty kilometres every time you want to draw your pension.”
“Ah, m'sieur, thanks a thousand times,” he cried, rising and grasping my hand gratefully. “Thank you, Mister Collector of Taxes; thank you, thank you. ...” '
“But,” I cried, in my turn astonished, “collector of taxes? Are you mistaking me for the tax-collector?”
The light dimmed from his face as if one had drawn down a grey shutter.
"But aren't you the tax-collector?” he ejaculated. “I heard he was to be here. He resembles you—with the glasses . . . Of the same age ...” We comforted him as best we could. He told us that he was the tinsmith of Roussillon. “I live right at the top, m'sieur, opposite the church. But I am not the man I used to be. Ah, once I was the most expert tinsmith in all the department. . . ."
A true pride these old workmen had in their crafts. As near as they could come they were artists, turning a lifetime of labour into a thing of unfailing interest by the exercise of their skill, welcoming a difficult task because it tested their powers, storing up employers' compliments as though they were medals in the Salon.
“Blinded fools,” a Bolshevik might call them, “wasting their talents to make other men rich and then having to drag their rheumatic bones twenty miles to collect their old-age pensions.”
Yet riches may not be as valuable as the right attitude toward one's job. Man cannot live by bread alone. And these old working craftsmen did store up the right kind of memories. This old tinsmith, like the old eel-fisher of Pont-sur-Yonne, could look back on his past with a happy pride; he could live in the warmth of his own image, and nobody could rob him of that.
All the same . . . we do wish that those maids had a better bedroom. The very thought of that perennial discomfort almost spoiled the flavour of the omelette one of them might hand to us. Almost, but not quite. Let us admit freely that we cannot hope to change the condition of French servants; only fifty
years ago ours were as badly lodged. These things improve at a certain rhythm for every country. The French servant is better off than the Spanish, and the Spanish better off than the Balkan.
I half thought of taking the old man back on the moto, but feared he might fall off. When we saw him later he had found a lift, but his journey had been in vain, the tax-collector was absent.
Next day we paid him a visit at Roussillon.
No. The painter of that screaming picture had not lied. Nothing can be imagined like the colour of Roussillon, Provence. In the middle of this wild, grey, grey-green, grey-yellow valley, where all swims in the peculiar, bright grey illumination of Provence, Roussillon bursts out like a gigantic orange flower from the earth's volcanic deeps. From grey and olive you dash suddenly into vermilion and viridian. On all sides stand tall cliffs of pure ochre, scarlet, vermilion, and gold in the sun, eroded into a thousand fantastic knife-edges by the torrential rains. At the foot of these dazzling cliffs the vegetation grows green, as if in a West Indian valley, sucking from the iron-bound earth a deeper chlorophyll than elsewhere can be found, and rendered yet more incredibly green by the force of complementary colours. Only the grass is no longer green, and has taken on a peculiar lavender tint. Out of the welter of this red, green, and lavender rises a tall hump of orange cadmium, up which soars the village, moulded out of the materials to hand, so that under the primrose light of the westerning sun Roussillon blazes like a fabulous Eldorado, unearthly creation of those who, seeking not for beauty, have built glory instead.
Before that high-lifted marvel we stood silent, letting the colour sink into us, until we felt as if dissolved in its sheer opulence. It was no question of hastily grabbing for sketching things and setting to work. Before some scenes the ordinary man ejaculates: “Nobody could paint that!” And he is right. Before Roussillon in the full sunlight one could only say: “Nobody could paint that!” The man in the Luxembourg Museum had tried, and all he had achieved was a brilliant vulgarity. One might have made something of Roussillon by putting it into a stained-glass window, but that isn't painting with paint; it is painting with the sun itself.
Architecturally speaking, Roussillon is not notable. The people were building houses. God and good luck gave them the colour. One thing they have done. Whether it was by a subtle instinct or no we cannot say, but they have outlined their houses in white. White round the windows, round the doors, up the corners, and under the eaves. It is almost as if on their village they had made a white drawing of the village itself, which adds a peculiar vividness to the colour and emphasizes the structure. One might almost say that Roussillon was a cubist's ideal painted with a post-Impressionist palette.
We found our old tinsmith sitting at the local cafe in the higher village.
The old man insisted on showing us round, especially into the old ochre galleries that pierce the vermilion hillsides everywhere with huge burrows, as if elephants had become rabbits.
“Eh! many a hundred tons of good red ochre have been taken from here in my time," he said mournfully. “And as for their one use nowadays, I wouldn't like to mention it while the lady is present."
He also told us that Roussillon grows an excellent grape, which, as it has no vintage reputation, is sent to Chateauneuf and used to ‘cut' some of the wines there. . . .
Gordes was perhaps most delightful in the evening. During the daytime we were much bothered by the mistral, a mean wind that somehow chilled the enthusiasms even more than the body. It also went dust-hunting, and emptied its whirlwind collection over your sketch at a critical moment; a wind that waggled your canvas maliciously just as you made your most difficult stroke. In the evening it subsided.
After dinner we all gathered on the terrasse: madame and the two Parisiennes, the young bureaucrat and his numerous females, ourselves, and the young baker with wife and child. One thing struck us here: the very feminine nature of French village life.
By feminine we do not mean the old maids' tea-party, but something that contrasted with the life of most other countries, because in it the men seemed to have few interests that their women did not share. The talk was not male or female; it somehow suited either sex. The Frenchmen seemed to have no need to separate off into a corner to tell smutty jokes, or discuss football, racing news, or betting. And they didn't have to be jocose because there were women in the company. If a Frenchwoman has few rights she has most of the privileges, and has it not been said: “Give me the luxuries and you can keep your old necessities “? Indeed, many of the actual nuisances that a woman suffers from in France come from the fact that the Frenchman likes women more than he respects them. We believe that secretly most people would rather be liked than respected. Nor can we look down with masculine contempt at these female-liking Frenchmen. The War has acquitted them of any suspicion that a man must be a mollycoddle because he has gentle manners.
The young bureaucrat was at ease in the society of his family. The baker and his pretty wife, who in England, Spain, or Germany would hardly ever be seen in one another's company, except on special occasions, used to wander round every night, take their drink together, and be ready for any amount of talk.
It may be the talk that does it. A Spanish proverb says: “The talkative man ends by consoling himself.” Aye, but the man who talks ends by amusing himself, ends by interesting himself, ends by interesting others. Of course, he needs a proper courtesy of talk. The definition of the bore is: “He who talks about himself when you want to talk about yourself “; but the definition of the conversationalist is: “He who can listen in his turn.”
Talk and the sun, two of the greatest blessings in this life.
Confound all strong, silent men say we. That they could ever have been a maiden's ideal in fiction shows just how little Englishwomen expect from marriage.
One evening our conversation was interrupted by the sudden descent into our midst of something that came hurtling through the evening air like a woolly meteor. This was followed by a fierce pounce of the cat and a shriek from one of the maids loitering near the hotel entrance. Shouting voluble abuse, she hurled herself on the track of the cat, which, captured after an exciting chase, was forced to give up its prey, a small, nerve-shattered owlet, which blinked its large eyes at us from the girl's enclosing hand.
“What will you do with it?” we asked.
“Put it in a cage in the window. The parents will go on feeding it.”
The maid was an odd-looking creature, not unlike an immature Mona Lisa. Passionately attached to animals, she allowed that enigmatic smile to appear only when fondling them; with humans she was always elusive.
The cage was set at the top of the tower, out of the way of cats. As we snuggled into bed we thought of that small, perplexed captive over our heads, and of the wild parents trying to bite through the bars with their sharp, curved beaks. But before dawn our sympathy was changed to curses, for all night long the owls, hooting a dismal note of dismay, swept past our windows on their silent wings.
They were nesting in a hole far up the great castle wall, and out of it the next day tumbled two more owlets. The parents must have been very neglectful to allow them abroad so early, but once the infants were captured they brought food with exemplary persistence. A few days later we noticed that the cage was empty.
“What has happened to the little owls?” we asked.
“Oh, she threw them away,” said madame impatiently. “She is just like that, you know.”
But, we asked ourselves, how does one throw young owls away?
FRIVOLITIES ON SERIOUS GROUNDS
Water-power versus sentiment—what is one to do about it? Is one Petrarch in the past worth half a dozen paper-mills in the present? Or perhaps that isn't a pertinent query. Shall we ask rather: “Is the flavour of one memory of Petrarch in the past worth half a dozen paper-mills in the present?” Here, almost where Petrarch once planted a laurel, now M. Durand1 has planted a mill. Here Petrarch wrote of the laurel:
Ah, to my heart what happiness this tree doth give
And this small stream so blessed by love's assaults,
Apt to a life that was so armed and quick,
Which by desire aflame committed such great faults . . .
But what has M. Durand written about his paper-mills? An advertisement or two, maybe? Perhaps, though, he may only provide the materials on which other poets can write other sonnets to other ladies' blanches mains.
“No,” protests M. Durand. “That is not fair, my friend.
The paper-mills don't come within half a mile of the actual Fountain of Vaucluse, where the Sorgue rises from its dark cavern beneath the high encircling cliffs. Those
Deep-shadowed woods, in which my sun exalts
With burning rays the crests of lofty pines.
O limpid stream, delectable champaign
Where she her beauty and white hands hath laved,
are not being desecrated by us, monsieur."
All right; that's true, in fact. Where Laura possibly bathed her hands there is now no more than a restaurant and a picture-postcard shop, and as for the limpid Sorgue, it has practically been transformed into nothing more than one of those glass tanks full of fish that are wheeled about the swell restaurants. You can eat your trout while his brothers and sisters swim about—all-alive-oh!—under your nose. No doubt, if you take a particular fancy to one still in the stream the waiter would easily drop a tempting worm over his nose and pull him out for you.
Still, an anteroom of paper-mills and a vestibule of restaurant, together with an accompaniment of assorted trippers' yells, doesn't invite you to sit and meditate over the mysteries of Petrarch and Laura, no matter how impressive the scene.
Strange passion that has left so many records and so few clues. For, though we are quite convinced of where the lady was buried, we don't even know the colour of her eyes or whether she really existed. If it was Laura de Sade, as most believe, she was the mother of eleven bouncing children, and therefore a most efficient wife, which does rather scratch the daintiness off the legend. Some people cling to the idea that she was only symbolic, and that that was as near as Petrarch ever got to a real love affair. Narcissus to a Laurel-bush.
In Avignon we saw a nun trying to cross the road. She was one of those small nuns who, dressed with extreme modesty from the heels to the neck, suddenly burst above into an incredible extravagance of starched linen. Her head-dress was in truth a weird flower of sanctity, a deep white calyx at the bottom of which her pistil of a face was hid, sunk deep from the intrusion of any rude bee of an amorous male. But this pious vanity of starch was invented for other days. A dozen times she ventured from the pavement, her head wig-wagging from side to side, trying to level her periscope at all points of danger simultaneously. And a dozen times she scurried back in a panic to the pavement, her rosary streaming out behind her like the tail of a startled cat.
Somehow this nun reminded us of the past of Avignon itself, when the Papacy tried to dodge the rising tide of that old modernism called the Renaissance. This great lowering Palace of the Popes is more like a fortress than a palace; it is a symbol of struggle rather than of "Peace that passeth all understanding" ; and here the Vicegerent of that Christ Who would have been the servant of all men tried to rule all kings. Here too was played out the final act of that comedy when the Pope, infallible by the special dispensation of God Himself, split into two Popes, each swearing to the heavens that the other was a usurper and a scoundrel. As the fat monk in Stevenson's yarn says: "Hominibus impossible. . "
A friend of a friend was once accosted in the City of London by two Americans.
“Excuse me," said one of the voyagers, “can you tell me where this church of St Paul's of yours is?”
“Why, that's it,” said our friend's friend, pointing to the dome showing over the intervening roof-tops.
“Oh, that's it, is it? “said the American. “Thank you, I'm sure." Then, turning to his friend, he added: - "Well, Jake, I guess that's all right. We've done St Paul's now. What's next?”
Let us confess. We've done Avignon, Villeneuve-les-Avignon, the Pont de Garde, Tarascon, Les Beaux, Aries, Les Saintes-Maries, Aiguesmortes. . .
Palaces, fortresses, works of art, ruins, legends, atmosphere. . .
But by how much are we really the richer? Is the Palace of the Popes quite as impressive as we thought it was?
Are the battered paintings on its walls quite as fine as we had hoped? Has one got anything from gazing upward at the arches of the Pont de Garde: so much stone to carry so little water? Is Tarascon in life (or in slumber) half as amusing as Tarascon in Tartarin Would you rather drive along the road from Fontvieille with Daudet and his wagon-load of country folk or on a motor-cycle in the dust?
Edmund Candler once wrote an article asking which you preferred, books or people? Would you rather have the company of characters in literature or in life? He voted for the literary ones, for they were purged of the matrix of dullness in which almost every person hides the gold of his individuality. Places are the same. One needs time to shred them from the shell of their boredom. Hence comes the paradox that the greatest pleasure in travelling consists in stopping still. To travel continually is certainly to take your boredom out for a walk, while to stop still is to let your humanity loose on a round of discovery.
But the curse of maps in real travel is that from all points of the compass they invite one with names that are seductive to the imagination. And so one is tempted to follow a will-o'-the-wisp route which nevertheless has to be counted out in mileage and contained in time.
A friend used to cry: “If I were God I'd be interested in everybody. As I am not God I have to select." The same becomes true of travelling. We have to select, or let chance select for us.
For instance, Les Beaux. A sensation almost amounting to dramatic terror ushers in the first sight of Les Beaux. You should come at it from the north. A long, winding road, uphill through country that grows more and more sterile, brought us to a lonely crest over which the road curved down once more into a desolate valley. The grass became a pale, livid green, out of which thrust rocks, quite colourless in their dead, neutral tint of grey. Overhead the sky was grey to match the stones; there was no wind, and a great stillness reigned, broken only by the vulgar clatter of our indefatigable mechanism. As soon as the hill was steep enough we cut off the engine and slid down in silence. Turning a corner, we came upon the surprising amphitheatre. Roughly it was a wide circle of cliffs, at the foot of which gaped a row of immense square caverns, like tombs in which all the giants of our childhood might lie buried. The unexpectedness of this impressive, silent cemetery of the titanic dead was deeply moving, and although we knew well that it could have served no such purpose, yet it worked on our feelings with all the force of a piece of calculated art. These tall dead-grey precipices, this pallid grass, these black square-framed openings, were far more dramatic than any artificial Island of the Dead by a Bôklin. We have no wish to reduce it to any more mundane terms. “Nature imitates Art,” said Whistler; here Nature had created Art for itself.
Then, beyond the airy tip of this strange amphitheatre, for it was scooped in the flank of the still-descending mountain-side, we saw a more distant cliff. And half-way up this precipice, perched like the aerie of Indian cliff-dwellers, was a collection of houses, looking tiny in comparison with these huge tombs. It looked like a refuge for toy-brigands, a nest of Lilliputian eagles. . .
But it is only a nest of very normal parasites making a meagre living by selling souvenirs to tourists. You will gain little by going nearer to Les
Beaux. The magic diminishes, as if by mathematical law, inversely according
to the square of the distance. So be content to ' do ' Les Beaux in the American sense. Gaze at it as long as you like, then take off your hat to it and proceed downhill, skirting the lip of the Devil's Valley on the way to Aries.
Or take Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. You come to it across the broad, flat estuary plain of the Rhone's mouth, called the Carmargue. The tourist brochures give you visions of wild cavaliers, half shepherd, half toreador, armed with long three-pronged lances for controlling the huge herds of half-savage cattle that roam these desert lands. But do you meet herdsmen or cattle? Not a prong, not a horn. Tilled now and respectable, it is set with prim green vines, in which work industrious labourers, bearing copper canisters of turquoise wash on their backs and sprays in their hands.
Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, strange centre of a strange pilgrimage, is a dreary little beach resort for the impecunious clerk. A group of insignificant houses, homes of fishermen or seaside landladies, surrounds a massive church, ochre-tinted, a veritable fortress of the faith, in which the precious bones of the Maries had to be defended with pikes and arquebuses against raids of Algerian pirates and the naughty envies of other Christians.
Mistral, the Provencal poet, has chanted the curiosities of Les Saintes-Maries:
In the nave of this fine church stand three altars, three chapels stand built one above the other from blocks of living stone. Deep underground in the crypt lies Saint Sarah, revered by the dark-skinned, gipsy tribes. Above, the second holds the altar of God. On the pillars of this sanctuary the narrow mortuary chapel of the Maries raises to the heavens its vault and relics. Sacred legacy from
whence Divine Grace falls like the rain. . . .
A curious legend is told of this lonely place. After the Crucifixion the Romans took the three Saint Marys, Saint Martha, Saint Lazarus the resurrected, and Saint Maximin, put them in a boat lacking both sails or oars, and set them adrift from the shores of Palestine. Disdained, Sarah, the humble gipsy servant, was left to weep on the beach. She, passionately faithful, was determined to follow her mistresses, so, untying her apron, spread it on the waves, sat herself on it, and followed in the wake of the miraculous odyssey. They all landed at this spot on the shores of Provence. Under the burning sun they were in danger of dying of thirst, had not a wonderful spring burst through the sand. Over this spring the church is actually built, and the water runs to this day to prove that the tale is true.
Once a year Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer awakens to extraordinary life. On May 24 and 25 the sacred bones of the saints are lowered from their high refuge. The three locks of the caskets are turned, the faithful may touch and, if their faith is sufficient, be cured. The chapel was placed thus high for fear of the pillagers. Although Christians had been expressly warned not to lay up treasures on this earth, a good deal of un-Christian conflict was excited—who should hold the miracle-working bones which assured such large profits from the pilgrims? So that, anciently, relic thieves were to be feared even more than the smash-and-grab experts of to-day.
Yet it is not the holy relics that make Les Saintes-Maries so very interesting. Other places have saintly relics that do no more than tickle the imagination. But Les Saintes-Maries is unique. Down in the crypt the bones of Saint Sarah lie under glass so scratched by the friction of the gipsies' wedding-rings that they are hardly visible. Saint Sarah? You will not find her in the catalogue. Despised in life, she is still despised in death. Though she lies in a Christian chapel, the Church will have none of her. That miraculous voyage on the apron smacks too much of The Arabian Nights' Entertainments. Christianity prefers its barques to be a little more solid.
No. Poor Sarah has been proclaimed saint only by the voice of the people. Vox populi vox Dei? Perhaps, but lots of Popes and Archbishops would be very annoyed if they were to find, on their translation, that the dark-skinned apron navigatoress had been placed in honour among the seats of the mighty. They have changed their minds about Saint Joan of Arc, but there are no such political reasons to do the same for Sarah.
Sarah is a saint only for the very lowest and least respectable in the community, for publicans, wastrels, and sinners, in fact. The gipsies have elected her. Even from far Granada, from Murcia, from Hungary, or Rumania, the wandering people flock to do honour at her shrine. Also, in the dark crypt, lit only by the glimmer of tapers, the gipsies elect their Queen, who in turn, and in due course, appoints the King—traces, perhaps, of an ancient matriarchy. This king has, so rumour goes, absolute power, even of life or death; there is no appeal from his decisions; but who he may be, what is his name, or when is the election day, no gipsy will tell.
Yet what is the true religion of the gipsies? Are they Christians? On their first entry into Europe they claimed to be Egyptians driven to wander in punishment for having refused hospitality to the Virgin, but they certainly believe that the souls of their grandparents may return to inhabit the bodies of their animals, and may even at the moment be lodging in those of their own donkeys. Lucky for the donkeys it is, too, for in consequence few gipsies maltreat their animals, except under the influence of rage, when, perhaps, they might equally be expected to maltreat even their own grandparents. By a curious coincidence, the casket containing the relics of Saint Sarah rests on a very strange stone, that has been identified by the learned as part of an ancient Mithraic altar. Whence came this stone dedicated to the sun-god of Zarathushtra ? May it not be that here in this quiet, remote spot a relic of a religion older than Christianity survives, but sheltering, as the old rites so often did, under the wing of the popular religion? To this day, in Oporto, on St John's Day, the girls hand the men leeks, which are clearly remains of an ancient Bacchic rite. An enigma, like so much that has to do with the gipsies. . . .
At any rate, the Church has its suspicions. It can't turn Sarah out, that would cause too great a scandal. But they are very sniffy about the poor wench. “Saint?” they exclaim. “Oh, well, if you like to call her a saint for fun we can't stop you, but please don't think that we are going to perform a service in her chapel. . . . Oh, dear, no.”
Thus this little, bright, vulgar Saintes-Maries enshrines its unique mystery. Yet on a casual afternoon it has little air of either mystery or romance. You must go there in the season, and that is the shortest season on record, lasting only two days per annum. If you do go there you will probably get your pocket picked by the pious pilgrims.
Aiguesmortes will remain far more romantic in your thoughts if you never go near it. Gaze at selected photographs and be content. The reality isn't very attractive. Nor does the open-air loud-speaker constantly braying the café-keeper's favourite melodies enhance the pleasure of the medieval sunset.
A strange traveller's idiosyncrasy is that of rushing up any mountain available at the earliest opportunity. This doesn't mean the strenuous and serious sport of mountain-climbing, but only the passion to get to the top of anywhere to look at a view. The plain truth is that mountains are really things to look at rather than places to look from. The view from the average eminence that the tourist climbs is almost always the same. You could select fifty different views from fifty different eminences and hardly be able to tell one from the other. Mere expanse isn't necessarily beauty.
In this respect the excellent maps of Michelin suffer from the prevailing complaint. A special expert in cosmo-graphical beauty has been given the task of edging with green such roads as can be called picturesque. But by testing them we have found only two criteria: any road running by a river is ipso facto beautiful, or any road commanding more than ten miles of view. No others need apply.
So, seduced by the green edge of a curly road from Le Vigan,
we suddenly found ourselves climbing the southern flanks of the Cevennes.
The view spread wider and wider below us; the poor machine threshed, throbbed, and grew hot between our legs. Nevertheless, going uphill has a weird effect, like that of capillary attraction; it draws you up and up. You can never find resolution enough to turn round and run down again. There is no remedy till you get to the top. In the subsequent twenty-seven kilometres we urged the ' wardrobe ' up about 3500 feet, and arrived exhausted.
Motor-cycling has this peculiarity: you lend yourself to the machine. In a car there is little intimacy with the mechanism: you sit and drive. If the machine stops it stops. But with a motor-cycle you lend to the mechanism a part of your own personality. Logically, the business is no more than a matter of inconscient chemical reactions being transformed into propulsive energy; your personality hasn't a jot to do in the matter. Nevertheless you find yourself unconsciously endowing the machine with a responsive soul, and you try to animate it as you would a horse. You become pro tem, a new and strange kind of centaur. In turn you sympathize with its difficulties, feel its hurts, and echo its fatigues.
So we arrived at the top of the Mont de L’Esperou very tired, but having got there could do no more than the Duke of York himself in the song:
Oh, the grand old Duke of York,
Had twice ten thousand men.
He marched them up to the top of the hill,
And he marched them down again.
Only, on coming down we did take a different route, and passed over the wild wastes of the Causse Noir.
The causses are peculiar features of these parts. They are high limestone plateaux, on which is cultivated the rye that the peasants use so much for bread. The landscape of the causses has a peculiar sterile dignity, but lacks all suggestion of charm.
Still, the causses are responsible for some of the most charming pieces of scenery in France, the scenery of the rivers which have cut through their rocky foundations.
Strictly speaking, such rivers as the Rhone are not beautiful. The Rhone, if you will allow it, is more a watery passage through a gigantic panorama of beauty. For sheer riverside beauty its banks are too far apart. The eye does not hold it comfortably. The same applies to the Rhine. The Marne, the Yonne, and the upper reaches of the Seine have a quiet, domestic beauty suitable to the punts full of somnolent old fishermen who line their overhung banks.
But the Dourbie, the Cele, the Tarn, the Dordou, the Aveyron, the Lot, the Dordogne, and many others in this region, while keeping the comparatively narrow gauge so necessary for intimacy, have scooped out for themselves beds of striking loveliness. On every hand they have cut gorges: the strange labyrinth of Saint-Veran, the grandiose gorges of the Tarn, the gorges of the Dordou, the high limestone cliffs of the Cele (with cliff-dwellers complete), of the Lot, and of the Dordogne. Every few miles you come on villages still primitive, built on high precipices overhanging the water. Castles and fortified towns, like Domme, are not mere picturesque antiques, but play a noble part in the landscape, which to all appearance has not yet heard of the mechanical age.
But the river roads have also this disadvantage—they have hardly learned of the macadam age. The river soil furnishes poor foundations for roads, and by the borders of the lovely Lot we were so banged and bruised, bounding from one pot-hole into another, that we reached Figeac in a sad state, very tender in certain parts. We voted to promenade the town rather than sit in the cafe, and thus came to appreciate the medieval quaintness of that ancient place earlier than we otherwise might have done.
It was at Figeac that a cafe woman told us how her husband supplied the smugglers of Andorra with donkeys and mules, but we were too tired to note the details.
THE METROPOLIS OF THE CAVE MAN
Figeac to La Rochelle by way of Rocamadour
From the land of lovely rivers you may pass to that of profound gulfs. If you enjoy exploring deep holes in the earth you will find a number, ready for you, around that village-fortress-cliff miracle-working chapel of Rocamadour. There is the Gulf of Padirac, the Igue of Saint-Sol, the Igue of Biau, of Gilbert, and the Gulf of the Roque de Corn. The Gulf of the Roque de Corn can be specially recommended to suicides with a sense of decency. There is a little chamber filled with carbonic acid gas into which, the guide-book says, “it would be imprudent to penetrate."
Nevertheless, if you have strong prejudices about colour we would recommend that you dodge Rocamadour. The miracle-working image of the Blessed Virgin is black. Yet it is strange what sanctity these Black Virgins have. Few in number, they are almost all endowed with superior powers, and some demand rather painful processes of approach. The Black Virgin of Rocamadour stands 216 steps above the village. All these steps have to be climbed on the knees, and have been thus climbed so often that the stones are visibly worn. For knees renew themselves, but stones do not.
One other Black Virgin we have visited, at Alt Otting, in Bavaria. She has an oval chapel round which is a cloister. The faithful there bend their shoulders under the weight of large wooden crosses, under which they crawl the whole ellipse, followed by more of the faithful who would borrow a bit of virtue from the others' extra penances. These pious rounds are still of daily occurrence, and have been going on continuously since the Dark Ages. A set of primitive pictures record some of the early miracles of the Black Virgin. One runs more or less in this way:
Maria, servant of the Count ——, being afflicted with dire pains and wamblings in the belly, and finding no cure for them, did cry aloud to the Holy Maria of Alt Otting in her agony, whereupon there went forth from her thirteen serpents, some as long as a man's arm or thereabouts.
To which is added a realistic illustration of the scene. Maria lies rolling on the floor. Half a dozen of the ejected serpents are hurrying away, while the seventh, just making his exit from her mouth, wears an expression of fright, as though not only the Virgin herself but even St Patrick had taken the matter in hand.
At Rocamadour you will find the “Sword of Roland," half buried in the wall and chained to it. Still, everybody agrees that it isn't the sword of Roland at all, but a vulgar piece of botched ironwork made at the end of the eighteenth century, by a blacksmith at Grabat, to replace the Sword of Roland, which was presented to the Prince de Conde in 1780, and which was not Durandal, the real sword of Roland, anyway.
Also there is the miraculous bell, which is old, probably of the sixth century; in fact, one of the oldest known bells in existence. It is so old that it has acquired the art of ringing by itself. The first recorded exhibition of this unique power was in 1385 at 10 p.m. It rang again on May 5, 1454, and has been ringing off and on ever since. Each time that it rings the faithful know that somebody's life has been saved at sea. The facts are so carefully recorded that one is forced either to believe the miracle or to doubt the value of human evidence.
Still, whether you are a believer or a cynic, nothing can destroy the strange, romantic quality of Rocamadour plastered against its high, perpendicular cliff.
We confess that another small village, equally crouching under a perpendicular cliff, some fifty miles to the west of Rocamadour, contrived to stir our imaginations more profoundly : Les Ezies. For Les Ezies has been called the Metropolis of Prehistory.
Everybody must have some corners of the past that tickle their imaginations more vividly than others. In our own case one of these corners is Prehistoric Art. We are quite ready to admit that we gazed at the barely decipherable lines depicting a mammoth, scratched from life, on the slimy side in the cave of Combarelles with more interest than we considered the Palace of the Popes at Avignon, despite the part it has played in history and the fact that it is one of the largest buildings in the world. And the miracle that the coloured drawings in the cave of the Font-de-Gaume are still visible to-day outweighs in our imagination a hundredfold the rather pathetic miracles of the iron bell at Rocamadour.
But though Les Ezies, in its strange setting of high grey limestone cliffs, may be the Metropolis of Prehistoric Art, it is not the Taj Mahal. Les Ezies has produced some of the most perfect specimens of the various ages of early man ; it has given the names to two of the epochs : the Cro-Magnon and the Magdalenian; it has produced those remarkable sculptures the Venus and the Hunter of Laussel, the carved frieze of the Shelter of Cap Blanc, and the woolly rhinoceros and the reindeer of the Font-de-Gaume. There are no less than twenty-eight prehistoric situations around Les Ezies, and in the four principal caves—Font-de-Gaume, Combarelles, Grotte-de-la-Mouthe, and Bernifal—there are over a hundred drawings and incised outlines by the artists of some ten or fifteen thousand years ago.
Nevertheless, the greatest chefs-d'œuvre of the Palaeolithic Age do not come from here. The fantastic horse's head in ivory, which might have been carved to-day, comes from the Pyrenees, and the finest paintings are in the caves of Altamira or in the rock shelters of Cogul and Barranca de Valltorta, in Spain. Altamira has the honour to be the first which revealed that any paintings of prehistoric man had survived.
At Les Ezies also we had naturally to submit to the guide. In the case of the caves of Font-de-Gaume we were led by an old woman, who was clearly carrying out a routine duty and wanted to get back to her house as quickly as possible. But at Combarelles we found another type. The guide at Combarelles was a small, jocund hunchback, a leader singularly appropriate to the trolls' caverns he conducted us into, narrow clefts in the stone, through which at one time the explorers had to crawl on their stomachs. Already they have dug away the floor to give more head-room. And while we were there electricians, paid by a benefactor from distant Los Angeles, were installing electric light. We were among the last who will follow the troll, lighting ourselves with smoky dips stuck on to a piece of wood. But our troll had a family interest in the caves and drawings which made his guidance a thing of enthusiasms.
“My father used to own this cave," he said,” and many's the time I've crawled into it as a boy, little suspecting the treasures here. My father sold the cave to the Government for twenty pounds. Yes, twenty pounds, m'sieur; and they say the drawings are of inestimable value."
"He might have got a bit more than that for them," we said.
“Eh, bien!” answered the dwarf, with simple resignation. “It would be a question of having the cash to exploit them, you see. And if one hasn't that, what use are they? "
When we had reached the daylight once more, and we had given him a pourboire, he turned to his dog.
“Now," he said, " stand up and thank the lady and gentleman on my behalf."
The dog at once stood on its hind-legs and, wrinkling up its cheeks, gave us a most whimsical smile.
If, as the prehistorians affirm, these painted or carved beasts are really religious fetiches they were shaped for one purpose, that of charming the victims nearer to the spears, arrows, or death-falls of their devourers. Modern psychoanalysts hold, as a first element of faith, that the -absorbing passion of humanity is sex. That is eminently a well-fed belief. Magdalenian man could have taught them that the first most urgent need is food, and that, suffering from a yammering tummy, no man goes out chasing the girls. Food, food. Even this splendidly carved horse in the hollow of Cap Blanc was no tribute to man's most efficient servant. The horse hadn't yet been promoted from the stew-pot, and the boucherie chevaline would not have been considered as low by the Stone Age cook, but a consummation devoutly to be hoped for.
Thus Magdalenian man comes into close contact with the most modern man, the man of the United States. Between that day and this few statues have been erected to animals as mere food-producers—except perhaps Romulus' and Remus' wolf.
And extremes meet again, for here where the Stone Age man first learned to singe the steaks of mammoth or of sabre-toothed tiger is now the land of Perigord, famous among gastronomers. Here you will find such dishes as hare stuffed with goose's liver, truffled turkey, soup of goose's carcass, pate of partridges' livers, larded truffles cooked under the ashes, rusty sauce (of chicken's blood), rabbit with puffballs (but keep an eye on your toadstools), stuffed goose's neck, eels in verjuice, and many another dainty.
We tested none of them, for we were hastening upward and onward. . . .
Wait a minute, though. We did stop at Segonzac for a drink, naturally. And then we drifted through the unimpressive brandy vineyards. Here the wine is one of the worst and thinnest in France. Here grows only that grape called the Folle Blanche, one of the poorest wine-making grapes known, and yet it distils into the very best brandy. That no grape serves for two purposes is surely an odd fact. When good to eat it makes poor wine, and when good for wine it makes despicable brandy.
Chacun son metier.
We had another drink at Cognac, the other limit of the brandy area. We asked for no Napoleon vintage though. That cult is a piece of snobbishness. Brandy does not really gain bouquet after twenty-five years. During that time it has already lost nearly a half of its volume, and when you begin to calculate the loss meant by this shrinkage, and add to it the interest on money so long locked up, the costs of storage, care, and watchmen, the wonder is not that good brandy is so dear, but that it is so cheap. Many other investments would bring in a better return for the same amount of capital. Still, a good brandy investment is almost gilt-edged. Ah, and what an edge of gilt!
However, we arrived in a very happy mood at Saintes for lunch. But one should dine when the gastronomic sun shines; we were now out of the luscious lands of Perigord, in one that boasts only of curdled milk, cheese cakes, stuffed cabbages, and a stew of chicken's oddments. So quickly does the gastronomic atmosphere change in France.
The history of European art has few more romantic figures than that of Bernard Palissy, who lived and worked at Saintes.
Talk not of genius baffled: genius is master of man, Genius does what it must ; talent does what it can.
This little town, somnolent with its Roman and its eleventh- and twelfth-century remains, has engendered one of the most pertinacious geniuses and one of the greatest domestic heroes, driven to success by an unreasonable instinct.
The story of Benvenuto Cellini throwing all his wife's household pewter into the melting-pot for the statue of Perseus is well known. But another domestic hero was this Bernard Palissy, who tore down all his garden palings and burned all his wife's furniture to keep his pottery ovens alight. Great as was the domestic courage of Cellini, perhaps Palissy's was even greater, since at that time he had not produced a single piece of interest.
Nevertheless, after sixteen years of unrewarded effort, Palissy hit on his secret. By it later he contrived to save his neck, for though a Huguenot he was specially exempted from the massacre of St Bartholomew's Day. There is still extant a memoir of payment by Queen Catharine to him and his sons.
Bernard, Nicole, and Maturin Palissy, sculptors in earth, for the sum of 2500 livres for all the works in baked and enamelled earth which have yet to be done to complete the four parts of the circumference of the Grotto. . . .
LOVE IN LA ROCHELLE AND A RESCUE
We came into that ancient, heretic town of La Rochelle early in the afternoon. The introduction was uninviting: a broad, dusty boulevard paved with sagging cobbles that almost bumped our hearts out of our mouths.
Suddenly the boulevard narrowed, the cobbles became even more vile, and we found ourselves on the water-front of the old port, facing a small harbour filled with boats which thrust into the air masts ranked like the spears of a troop, flying broad banners of red sail and veils of yellow and green nets. Beyond these two towers, one on either side of the narrow sea-gate, stood dark and massive against the western sky. High above the masts of the bigger vessels rose taller, thinner spars, that curved toward the ends in a manner which suggested that the ships had whimsically decorated themselves, in imitation of beetles, with long, fantastic antennas. We chugged slowly round the port, looking for a suitable hotel. Here one of the larger ships, with the upstanding antennas, was discharging its cargo. This looked not unlike a collection of small, stiff torpedoes four feet long, but was really tunny-fish sun-dried till they had become their own mummies. Into the waiting cart the sailors packed them in ranks on their noses with their tails in the air.
At the far end of the harbour under the Tower of the Chain, where the boats clustered thickest, La Rochelle became a Breton village. The women in the streets were all wearing the starched white coif. We were puzzled, for a dozen kinds were mixed there. Stove-pipe coifs, bonnet coifs, streamer coifs, Spanish-comb coifs, and railway-signal coifs were all on parade. Yet as a rule these coifs are strictly local, and breed only one variety in one place.
The atmosphere of La Rochelle charmed us, and we decided to stay for a time, but at first could find no place suitable. That hideous curse of seaside respectability which includes dullness hung over all the smaller hotels. At last we found a small cafe which did proclaim itself hotel, though it had not the air of one. So we sat down in the bar and quietly took stock.
A few seamen were drinking at the zinc, behind which served a sonsy, good-humoured patronne and a lean waiter. At last we asked whether they really had a room.
“But certainly," laughed the patronne; “you can have a room for twelve francs a night, if you wish."
The price was suitable, now to see the room.
The pretty maid who was summoned led us up a dark stair to a large back room.
“Ha!” we said to one another. “Here we shall sleep well."
From our room a passage led to a side-gallery. Exploring this we found ourselves looking down into a big back hall, through which we had indeed passed, though without taking much notice of it. Now we remarked benches set round the walls, a little gallery at the back, and chains of coloured paper festooned from the ceiling.
" But what is this? " we asked the maid.
 " Oh, here," she answered joyously, " we dance in the evening. Lots of people come, and we have an accordion-player who is no less than a genius."
We scratched our heads.
“Hum!” we said. “Perhaps we shan't sleep quite as well as we thought we would."
In the cafe a quiet friendliness reigned. As the evening proceeded the influx of drinkers went on, till the place was packed. Most of the guests were men flavoured visibly by the sea—-forecastle hands, engineers, or dockers—for parallel to the small fishing-port was a deep, angular trough of docks, in which rusty, sea-worn steamers discharged cargoes with a clatter of winches beating time to spurts of escaping steam. A number of showily dressed girls also haunted the place, with this difference, that while day by day the male clients changed the feminine did not. We had not been very long in the place before we began to suspect, what was not far from the truth, that the house dealt in rather more than mere drink and dancing.
At last the accordion-player appeared. He was a loose-limbed but graceful young man, with eyes close together and a prehensile mouth, dressed with some appearance of gentility as compared with the seamen. Under his arm was a big, glittering, nickel-plated accordion, studded with keys. He sketched a bow toward us, as though he wished to offer us greetings as from one artist to others. Then, sitting in a corner, he lifted the instrument to his knees, slowly expanded the bellows, and let off a few preliminary howls, as though he were a wireless-set tuning in. There is a certain quality of competence called professionalism, already referred to; this quality was at once audible in the musician's handling of his instrument.
He played half a dozen tunes, and then, taking up a tin dish, made a turn of the bar, collecting a meed of small coin as supplementary earnings. We were interested to note that he deliberately dodged us. Artist to artist. He would take no alms from his equals, only from those he despised.
Properly speaking, the accordion is not an instrument natural to the latitude of La Rochelle, for undoubtedly instruments have their appropriate latitudes, with this peculiarity—the colder the louder. To find the accordion in its full perfection you should go to Scandinavia, where it reaches the amplitude of a small harmonium. Also in the northern regions (or in mountains, which often simulate northern latitudes) instruments such as the bagpipes are popular. The fiddle belongs to the temperate zone; but in the warmer latitudes you get instruments like the mandolin or the guitar—faint, often sentimental, tinkles suitable to accompany the cicada's song.
The reason is perhaps not far to seek. In the southern climes music is really a lazy amusement. In Spain you can sit all night strumming, half hypnotized by yourself and giving pleasure to a small, semi-somnolent audience, which sometimes may add a verse or two of impromptu song. In the North, however, the chill demands a more vigorous response. You can't strum on the accordion: an energetic sound is needed to stimulate the dance which keeps the folk warm. The colder the country the more energy expended, and the more energy expended the louder the response. It is interesting to note that in England, where the violence of the accordion is out of its proper climatic zone, but where the damp plays the dickens with fiddle-strings, the small octagonal concertina was designed.
Nowadays, though, in the perennial struggle of quantity with quality, quality is going by the board everywhere. So, striking southward, the brazen-voiced accordion is triumphing. Already it has ousted the violin from the dance-halls of the poor. The fiddler is fast becoming extinct as the dodo.
The accordion can hardly be described as an instrument that awakens the sympathies, yet, brazen though it may be, we should beware of despising it too much. Any instrument well played can be converted into an instrument of delight. And if one had to choose between a badly played accordion or a badly played violin we would choose the first. Its limitations for good are anyhow echoed by its limitations for evil.
Our accordion-player had no such consuming passion for his instrument.
“Ah," he confided, a few days later, sitting in his corner and squeezing a few preliminary chords, " this is not my proper role. I am a pianist--premier prix de conservatoire, I assure you. I have been playing in the cinemas until lately, but now, what with these talking and playing films, there is no more work for us. Eh, bien! what is a man to do ? He can't starve if he can help it. But they still use these wretched instruments. Well, one must resign oneself. Clearly it is not of the art. Mais, que voulez-vous? "
He ended with a true Frenchman's shrug, which expressed everything. Impotence in the face of misfortune, courage to carry on, hardening of the soul, loss of ideal and ambition, determination to survive. It was a shrug that contained all the kismet of the Arab.
So willy-nilly our ex-cinema-pianist had stooped to the accordion, and with his digital cleverness was soon able to play with far more skill and taste than most uncultured accordion squeezers. Artist evidently on the one instrument, he had not taken long to become artist on another, and he put into his menial task all the go and gusto that he could summon up.
Pity the poor artist. Is it for this that the nations and municipalities spend their money, to produce conservatoire prize men who must come at last to squeezing out raw music in a house of doubtful fame? For his case was by no means exceptional. Are high hopes stimulated, high-salaried professors engaged, examinations staged, prizes given, conservatoires and art schools invested with all the scholastic pomps, merely to turn out dance-hall players and advertisement designers? For of all this art business one thing at least is true: genius can't be taught, and mediocrity isn't worth teaching. The mere bare cash spent on training his first-class unemployable pianist, if capitalized, would have set him up in a very comfortable little occupation.
For the plain truth is that modern civilization has no place for all the musicians and artists that it is spending so much money to manufacture. The real genius cannot be stopped from his art—see the life of Bernard Palissy—the commercial artist will always find his way, but the semi-talented 10 per cent, geniuses that the average art school makes so much fuss about should be discouraged from the start of a career which has practically no future and must probably be disastrous.
One might say, however, that the true value of the art school or conservatoire is that it becomes a kind of Chelsea Hospital for artists who have reached a certain level of reputation. By becoming professors they are at least sheltered from the danger of starvation and from a need to force their work at a time when their productive period is waning.
Take our accordionist. The State had spent its money and talent on him. Here was the result. Another case we can cite from personal experience is that of an artist trained at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. He has long kept a paint and paperhanger's shop in a small town near Albi.
Nobody could have shut their eyes for long to the real purpose of this café dance-hall and of the bedrooms above. Although not directly immoral perhaps—-since the girls were quite free agents—it was clearly non-moral with a wink. Yet the place had a most attractive atmosphere.
The patron and patronne were good-natured, easy-going people, the kind to whom you would quite readily take your troubles; the waiter was a cheerful lad, and the maid was as pretty and as hard-working as you could wish to find, certainly not tempted by the life of so-called pleasure with which she was surrounded. Indeed, her sense of propriety was so strong that she even wore stockings at the roughest of her tasks, and stockings to a poor working girl are a big feature in the budget.
The habitués were of all kinds, but a serene courtesy ruled them, no matter how rough they might be; their manners were excellent—often far better, we may add, than those exhibited in many a London night-club. The girls were mostly pleasant, empty-headed, and vain butterflies, a little bedraggled from being caught in too many nets, too brainless to think of the morrow, and sensual enough to enjoy the day. Yet they were all imbued with the sense of the ' correct' which is perhaps one of the most remarkable features of French national culture. Everybody accepted our presence without the restraint of false pride, and made no attempt to impose any class distinction on us from below.
At first when Jo began her rapid drawings of the varied types little notice was taken, for so unexpected was the craft that they did not perceive what she was doing. But once discovered the greatest excitement prevailed. The different sketches were eagerly handed round and criticized, and though some roused jesting comment no offence was taken, as none was intended. Only one sailor, half drunk, and mistaking a drawing of somebody else for himself, protested.
“Ah, non! " he cried, “ca n'est -pas chic, madame. That's not me at all. Not a bit like. I tell you frankly, madame, you cannot be a good artist, v’la!”
“But it's not meant to be you!” I shouted at him.
“Just what I say," he complained; " it's simply not me at all; yet she gives it out as my picture. Ah, non! One shouldn't treat a man like that behind his back. That's not correct, not correct at all. Madame, I don't like you for that. It is not correct."
He was so wrapped up in his grievance that he would listen to no explanation, and at last stumbled out into the darkness, still clutching his piece of paper and still complaining loudly.
One by one the other guests insisted on posing, until Jo was drawing about thirty heads a night. For the most part their heads weren't interesting; the loose-lipped mentality of modern mechanized youth does not breed notable faces. Indeed, their most distinctive features were their caps, Frenchified exaggerations of the English golf cap, worn at every conceivable angle or twist to express a dogginess of character.
Once an American showman said to Jo: “Do you draw people as they think they are, as you think they are, or as they really are?” The faces in which Jo was really interested she drew as she thought they were. Such drawings were invariably rejected by their owners, for all these lads were consumed with vanity. These Jo kept. The faces that did not interest her she amused herself by drawing as she thought the owners might imagine themselves. These she allowed them to keep, in order to tempt other sitters. The girls she drew with enormous eyes, long eyelashes, and rosebud mouths; no matter how she flattered them they received the drawings as gospel, and clamoured for more of the same dose.
Nightly in the musicians' gallery the brilliant ex-pianist pumped music from his accordion, accompanied by a trap-drummer and a guitar. Below the couples twirled amorously. Among the girls were a few Bretons, in full costume of starched coif, black velvet dress, and embroidered apron, their black hair plastered so smoothly that their heads seemed to be moulded into ebonite balls. We never fathomed the true status of these Breton girls, whether they were fishermen's wives and sweethearts, or whether, like the others, they drove the ancient trade. Some of them were very fine, and had a certain touch of rough arrogance. One refused to let Jo sketch her, demanding a fee of twenty francs. At all events she wasn't as unsophisticated as she looked.
Often as we went off to bed we noticed the pretty maid hanging over the railings. The lights from the ballroom illuminated her lovely, eager young face, and invariably she was gazing at the premier prix de conservatoire. For in this house of transient love a drama of true love had been developing.
Drama or tragedy? We did not stay long enough to see its climax. At any rate, it had already developed far enough to trouble the good-natured patronne.
One morning she sat down at our table as we were taking our -petit dejeuner.
“To tell you the truth, m'sieur-dame" she confided,” I am worried about Celine. Eh, bien! You know that Celine is a good girl. She works hard. She is honest and pretty, too. I wouldn't like to see her shamefully used. But she has gone and got herself engaged to the accordion-player. I admit that he is a good accordion-player, one of the best we have employed, but, what will you, he is an artist. . . . And you know what artists are ... if you will pardon me."
“Certainly we know,” we answered.
"Well, they are engaged all right, but he is borrowing her economies. And that's what I don't like. She has eight hundred francs in the savings-bank, has Celine, which is not bad for a girl who works, vous savez. He has already got four hundred of them out of her. Now that's not correct. It isn't as if he didn't earn pretty well for himself. I'm not easy about the affair at all. Because, you see, if he eats into her savings and then goes off and doesn't marry her after all…”
“Yes, but if he does marry her it may even be worse," said Jo.
“Precisely, madame, as you say, it might even be worse. But what can one do? It's no use talking to her; she's crazy about him. Amorous as a cat. Ah, m'sieur-dame, you know . . . it's not easy . . . the life. ..."
“Chacun ses ennuis,” we said sympathetically.
"Ah, how true that is!” she answered, brightening up, as the French always do at the old platitude. “One cannot live another's life for him. Still, you understand, the affair worries me. And to give him notice? It's a question. She would probably follow him. And you know both are so good for the work in their own ways. As you said, indeed, chacun sa vie. ..."
“Chacun son destin” we riposted.
“Ah, bah! “ she said, shrugging her shoulders despondently. “C'est vrai … .oui.”
Poor Celine. Chacun ses amours. . . .
At the far side of the port under the old walls was a little cafe where we used to sit and watch the bustle of the fishing-boats. A curious dramatic attraction this end of the harbour exercised over us. The two heavy towers facing one another had so narrow a passage between them that once a mighty arch spanned the whole harbour entrance. With the excellent carelessness of ancient architecture the compass and plumb-line hadn't been overworked. The squat Tower of the Chain wasn't properly round, and the tall, angular block of the Tower of St Nicholas wasn't perpendicular. They were both pleasantly free from the cold, mathematical precision that marks our modern drawing-board buildings.
Under the shadow of the Tower of the Chain the sardine-boats drove in on the flood, squirting their paraffin fumes into the air and trailing their lovely, blue, translucent nets. On to vivid green hand-carts they piled the trays of spangled fish. Stiff as robots in their sea-going clothes of blue or russet canvas, the fishermen rolled about the quays with their coiffed, Asiatic-featured women. This corner of the port was no true Breton spot, though, but only a colony in a foreign land. Hence the diversity of the coifs, which came from all parts of Brittany. Yet, no matter how pressed the women might be for something to put into the tummies of their children, they flaunted valiantly one against the other the vanity of their complex head-dresses cast in starched linen.
The Bretons were imported, working their boats on a share plan and often gaining a miserable livelihood. The tunny fishermen were local and made longer trips. Those long antennae-like spars were in reality gigantic fishing-rods, which, lowered on either side of the boat, trailed the bait far behind. Tunny are not to be captured in nets. But even when caught and dried, they told us, the fishermen's risks are not yet over. For nothing is more delicate than tunny meat. It is susceptible to damp, and a wet run home may spoil the whole cargo.
Another kind of domestic fishing was practised in the harbour itself. The fishermen could not properly be called fishermen at all, but rather sea-gamblers or lucky-bag dippers. You could see them off for their sport whenever the tide was running in. They propelled in front of them a kind of perambulator with a long spar. In the place of the baby stood a small winch, which could be steadied with heavy rocks at the edge of the quay, the arm projecting over the water. At the end of the cable was a stretched square of net, and the sport consisted in lowering this into the water and raising it again after a delay. Any unlucky fish that happened to be in that square of water was caught, but it has seldom been our lot to watch a more dreary form of meal-gathering, for divide the area of the harbour into the area of the net and multiply the result by the number of fish brought in by the tide and you have our fisherman's chance of making a catch. Nevertheless, almost every suitable corner of the quays was occupied by its perambulator fisherman, who wound and rewound his winch with an enthusiasm worthy of a better cause. To lift his catch from the trap he had a landing-net fixed to the end of a long bamboo rod.
This landing-net one night caught a very different kind of prize.
We were coming back from the cafe, and had already remarked on the peculiar blueness of the night. It was not a Mediterranean blue, rich and tender, which sets the stars like jewels on velvet, but a hard blue, tempered steel, a Prussian blue, that seemed to soak into everything. Only the sparse lights dotted along the quay were able to resist, and even they seemed isolated, and almost dimmed by the tint. The two towers were huge monuments of blueness; the white boats gleamed blue on the blue water, but the red of their sails had been swallowed up, and they hung black as the sails of the home-coming Theseus. On the other hand, the sardine-nets, which by day enveloped with blue veils their boat, eternal brides of the ocean, had been absorbed into their own colour and were invisible.
The faces of the Breton women stared at us greenishly under coifs of blue and laughed with lips of imperial purple.
At the corner we stopped to watch a perambulator fisherman. But except for a small and apparently facetious crab, that seemed to mock him deliberately with its inedibility, treating the net as though it were a kind of aquatic swing-boat, there was no catch for many a plunge. We passed on, expecting little more entertainment, but were surprised on crossing over the bridge that spans the canal lock to find a dense crowd clustered along the iron railing and staring down into the water.
The edge of the crowd was ignorant and restive, but the centre was condensed, and intent with a downward concentration of interest that made us remain until our soft but persistent pressure brought us in our turn to the railing. There we could stare down into a sea blue-black as though made of some ideal ink. Silently the crowd craned down the steepness of the sea-wall at a small tragedy below; for, in spite of the blackness, we knew at once it must be a tragedy. A mere object floating and inanimate, however unexpected it might be, could not excite the kind of interest that held the crowd.
Beyond the inkiness of the sea-wall the edge of shadow and lightness was fretted by a struggle of ripples running out into the water like files of charging soldiery, charging vainly against the all-invading blueness entrenched in the wider sea. And each charging series of ripples, with counter-charges of the blueness into the black, indicated some fresh attempt on the part of the invisible creature hidden down there in the blackness, fighting with fate.
Slowly, as our pupils adjusted themselves even to such darkness, the struggling creature below became dimly visible, a black against the blackness, but outlined all round its contact with the sea like a dim fluid silhouette sketched with blue chalk on a blackboard. Naturally we had expected something normal—a dog or a cat so waterlogged that it could no longer cry out—and for a moment this outline seemed meaningless. Then we thought that this struggling thing might be a small seal with fins too large for its body. And with a real shock of astonishment we suddenly understood the true nature of this creature fighting for its life in the water below us.
The thing was a bird.
For a moment one merely refused to credit the evidence of the eyes. Birds, unless broken-winged, do not come into the water, and this bird, large as a rock it seemed, was clearly using both wings spread wide like fins, propelling its head vainly against the upright, slimy wall with futile pertinacity, or else holding them inertly spread like the half-submerged aeroplane of an Atlantic flier broken down in mid-course. A bird! How had a bird lost its cunning in the air and thus fallen into the sea?
Some one in the crowd murmured, “C’est un doub" or some such word that we have not identified.
The idea occurred to us that it might be a dying sea-gull; for somehow sea-gulls must die. Yet how death actually overtakes the sea-gull we do not know. No doubt, in that unending battle which rules all lower lives few .can reach a noteworthy age; pitiless annihilation waits for their first falter. But it must be generally destruction of a carnal nature. Eat or be eaten. Something drags them down from the sky and devours them. Of those which escape to old age, however, do they take shelter on the solid earth or do they, rocking gently on the soft couch of the water, tuck their hoary heads under their tired wings and so sink quietly to oblivion, making thus some small recompense to the fish they have so long preyed upon? Or do they perhaps protest, and die struggling with the water, like this pitiful bird below us?
Just beyond, where the blackness of the quay's reflection merged with the blueness of the inverted sky, a chain hung down curving to touch the sea. Now we saw with a queer delight that the bird began to flounder toward this means of escape. Could it reach the chain it might have sufficient strength with beak and claw to drag itself from the sea which clung to its soaked feathers with so pitiless a capillary
But only a dumb instinct was fighting below us. A comparative safety might hang within a few well-directed sweeps of those wings, so queerly reverted to the fins from which they had morphologically developed. But the bird floundered to within a foot of the chain and then, turning, floundered back again. Somebody in the crowd shouted at it in exasperation, with a futile impulse to instruct even so inconsiderable a bit of life, moved by that irrational protest against accidental death that sometimes will break men's necks to save kittens.
A sudden movement agitated the far edge of the crowd. A strange object wavered in the air. It was the landing-net of the perambulator fisherman. Some quick-witted lad had run for it, and now it quivered against the blue for a moment before plunging down on, what we took to be, its errand of mercy.
“Not long enough!” shouted somebody.
But the wide circle dropped cleanly over the swimming bird. Flopping in the net, it was drawn to safety.
Somehow, in the mere relief of rescue, we had not considered the effect upon the bird itself. Rescued it certainly was, and now, gripped by its ingenious rescuer, it was being handled in a cursory examination to find the cause of its unusual predicament.
“Broken leg," suggested somebody.
But no injury was apparent.
“Simply tired out," said another. “Flying over the sea till it could fly no longer and then dropped."
The rescuer clutched it by the soaked wings and stood it on the head of a neighbouring barrel, under a lamp, while we curious human beings clustered round it, staring.
Now we could clearly see that the bird was a cormorant.
Held a little too high, it stamped its wide, webbed feet on the barrel head with all the awkwardness of a baby trying its first steps. Its body, garnished only with bedraggled plumage, showed skinny as that of a dervish in tatters, and it stretched out on its long, lean neck a narrow, brainless head and predatory beak, staring witlessly at the strange circle of an inferno populated with unimaginable demons, an avian Dante with no power to reshape the terrifying phantasmagoria of its sudden voyage, while still living, into Hell.
What mysterious impulse of the life-preserving instinct had driven it thus tirelessly onward beating the winds over perilous seas to drop it thus, smack 1 into the mouth of the infernal regions? Anywhere on the uncharted path a hairbreadth of deviation to either side would have landed it safe on some unpopulated shore. A breath more of wind to the north or south would have spelled safety, but Fate had decreed a different end.
“And now what are you going to do with it? " somebody asked.
"Do with it? Why, take it home and cook it, quoi?" replied the delighted possessor.
The answer hit us with an unexpected shock.
We had been craning over the rails absorbed in the struggle, and in that very struggle had somehow managed to identify ourselves with the unhappy victim. It was not a feeling of sport but one of common identity in life that stirred us. For those moments a small imaginative part of us had been fighting with the sea in frenzied hope. But in our mere unreasoned sympathy with struggling life we had overlooked the fact that we were in France; and while we had been thus craning over the rails in a dramatized pity most of the other members of the crowd had seen only a second-rate supper out of reach.
But what a supper!
In the dim light the hapless bird, held up by its long, scraggy wings, padded its useless feet on the head of the barrel, while we ghouls with faces of olive-green goggled at it. It looked, wretched bird, as though it had been flying for a month and starving all the while. The sea had stripped it of all pretence and finery, had bared its head till it seemed all too small to bear the weight of that pitiless beak, curved suddenly at the end like a savage sword. Its long, lean neck seemed compounded of bone and whipcord, fit meal, perhaps, for some famished cat, but hardly enticing as human food. And we have heard that cormorant meat, though it might perhaps be used at a pinch as a substitute for filet de hareng marine, is hardly suitable for any other purpose.
And yet the unsuitability of the animal to its fate had nothing to do with the sense of repulsion that hurt us. We were suddenly astounded to find that other human beings were made so differently from ourselves. We were amazed at being shocked back to realities from which we had momentarily escaped. Intrinsically, what was a cormorant? Nothing. A piece of waste and squanderable life. And what was the mere destruction of a piece of life for a meal, however repulsive that meal might be? Nothing again, an everyday affair. And yet somehow this realistic climax was nauseating.
Undoubtedly the sentiments of Jo and myself were similar in nature, but her reactions are the quicker. She pushed sharply at my elbow. “Buy it," she muttered.
“I’ll give you five francs for the bird," I said to the owner.
The crowd turned on me, a ring of green faces agape. Thus we became the possessors of this small, bedraggled piece of struggling flotsam. There was the rub. This bird in Hell could not appreciate the turn its fate had taken. Equally it fought against beneficence as it had fought against doom, and, in the passionate frenzy of its struggling, beneficence itself could not be kind. I found, indeed, that the only way to carry the cormorant was by gripping its wings together over its back and swinging its body from them, a distressing burden to carry through a curious town. It tried to behave like a gymnast who has got through his own arms on the horizontal bar and can't get back again. Some of the crowd hung on our heels for a time, and now and again other inquisitive people joined them.
We reached the doors of our naughty hotel. We now wondered what would happen if we took our cormorant in to dry him out and to get rid of our followers. However, we saved the Stygian wanderer from such further experiences and continued round the quay.
At the far end, beyond the Tower of St Nicholas, is a queer little stunted wood in which the trees, battered by the winds, have grown up as gnarled and contorted as those in any witches' wood. Toward it we made our way, and one by one the curious dropped off, till, by the time we had reached the tower, we were quite alone. The exhausted bird had by now ceased its struggles and hung inert from its wings.
At last we reached a spot far enough from chance humans or from passing dogs and laid it on the grass. The poor thing was so exhausted that it could not move. Perhaps the crucifixion of its transport had cramped its muscles; at any rate, it lay spread and inert, like a torn derelict of the sky tossed there by the tempest. And then slowly the muscles contracted, the wings closed over it like a protecting roof, and with the closing of the wings half the tattered misery of its appearance disappeared.
And thus we left it. We were no bird doctors, to treat its secret ills. We could offer it no greater boon than solitude and quiet. Thus we left the bird that had been to Hell and had returned.
At least we hope that it returned. Next morning we went back to the wood, but that was empty. Had our Hell wanderer recovered its strength, and was it now, free of the air once more, swooping sharply down upon some luckless fish; or had it crawled with its first returning strength back to its element the sea and, launching itself too soon, been, this time, irrevocably lost ?
La Rochelle to Dieppe and England ( A Jan Gordon literary joke)
well, not quite...............
..........Via the Dieppe- Newhaven ferry
they continued the tour through the Hampshire, Wiltshire and Wales, to Eire which took in the Arran Isles and the very south of Eire,
hence the title Three Lands on Three Wheels, published 1932.