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From Normandy To The Pyrenees by By Henry James


THE other day, before the first fire of winter, when the deepening dusk had compelled me to close my book and wheel my chair closer, I indulged in a retrospect. The objects of it were not far distant, and yet they seemed already to glow with the mellow tints of the days that are no more. In the crackling flame the last remnant of the summer appeared to shrink up and vanish. But the flicker of it's destruction made a sort of fantastic imagery, and in the midst of the winter fire the summer sunshine seemed to glow. It lit up a series of visible memories.

 

I.

 

ONE of the first was that of a perfect day on the coast of Normandy—-a warm, still Sunday in the early part of August. From my pillow, on waking, I could look at a strip of blue sea and a section of white cliff. I observed that the sea had never been so brilliant, and that the cliff was shining like the coast of Paros. I rose and came forth with the sense that it was the finest day of summer, and that one ought to do something uncommon by way of keeping it. At Etretal it was uncommon to take a walk; the custom of the country is to lie all day upon the pebbly strand watching, as we should say in America, your fellow boarders. Your leisurely stroll, in a scanty sheet, from your bathing cabin into the water, and your trickling progress from the water back into your cabin, form, as a general thing, the sum total of your peregrination. For the rest you remain horizontal, contemplating the horizon. To mark the day with a white stone, therefore, it was quite sufficient to stretch my legs. So I climbed the huge grassy cliff which shuts in the little bay on the right (as you lie on the beach, head upward), and gained the bleak white chapel of Notre Dame de la Garde, which a lady told me she was sure was the original of Matthew Arnold's “Little Grey Church on the Windy Hill.” This is very likely; but the little church today was not grey; neither was the hill windy.

I had occasion, by the time I reached the summit, to wish it had been. Deep, silent sunshine filled the air, and the long grass of the downs stood up in the light without a tremor. The downs at Etretal are magnificent, and the way they stretched off toward Dieppe, with their shining levels and their faintly-shaded dells, was in itself an irresistible invitation. On the land side they have been somewhat narrowed by cultivation; the woods, and farms, and grain fields here and there creep close enough to the edge of the cliff almost to see the shifting of the tides at it's base. But cultivation in Normandy is itself picturesque, and the pedestrian rarely need resent it's encroachments. Neither walls nor hedges or fences are anywhere visible; the whole land lies open to the breezes and to his curious footsteps. This universal absence of barriers gives an air of vastness to the landscape, so that really, in a little French province, you have more of the feeling of being in a big country than on our own huge continent, which bristles so unconsciously with prohibitory rails and stone-piles. Norman farmhouses, too, with their mossy roofs and their visible beams making all kinds of triangles upon the ancient plaster of their walls, are very delightful things. Hereabouts they have always a dark little wood close beside them; often a chénaie, as the term is—-a fantastic little grove of tempest-tossed oaks. The trees look as if, some night, when the sea-blasts were howling their loudest and their boughs were tossing most wildly, the tumult had suddenly been stilled and they had stopped short, each in the attitude into which the storm was twisting it. The only thing the storm can do with them now is to blow them straight. The long, indented coast line had never seemed to me so charming. It stretched away into the light haze of the horizon, with such lovely violet spots in it's caves and hollows, and such soft white gleams on it's short headlands—-such exquisite gradations of distance and such capricious interruptions of perspective—-that one could only say that the land was really trying to smile as hard as the sea. The smile of the sea was a positive simper. Such a glittering and twinkling, such a softness and blueness, such tiny little pin-points of foam, and such delicate little wrinkles of waves—-all this made the ocean look like a flattered portrait.

The day I speak of was a Sunday, and there were to be races at Fécamp, ten miles away. The agreeable thing was, of course, to walk to Fécamp, over the grassy downs. I walked and walked, over the levels and the dells, having land and ocean quite to myself. Here and there I met a shepherd, lying flat on his stomach in the sun, while his sheep, in extreme dishabille (shearing time being recent), went huddling in front of me as I approached. Far below, on the blue ocean, like a fly on a table of lapis, crawled a little steamer, carrying people from Etretal to the races. I seemed to go much faster, yet the steamer got to Fécamp before me. But I stopped to gossip with a shepherd on a grassy hillside, and to admire certain little villages which are niched in small, transverse, seaward-sloping valleys. The shepherd told me that he had been farm-servant to the same master for five-and-thirty years—-ever since the age of ten; and that for thirty-five summers he had fed his flock upon those downs. I don't know whether his sheep were tired of their diet, but he professed himself very tired of his life. I remarked that in fine weather it must be charming, and he observed, with humility, that to thirty-five summers there went several rainy days.

The walk to Fécamp would be purely delightful if it were not for the fonds. The fonds are the transverse valleys just mentioned—-the channels, for the most part, of small watercourses which discharge themselves into the sea. The downs subside, precipitately, to the level of the beach, and then slowly lift their grassy shoulders on the other side of the gully. As the cliffs are of immense height, these indentations are profound, and drain off a little of the exhilaration of the too elastic pedestrian. The first fonds strike him as delightfully picturesque, and he is down the long slope on one side and up the gigantic hump on the other before he has time to feel hot. But the second is greeted with that tempered empressement with which you bow in the street to an acquaintance with whom you have met half an hour before; the third is a stale repetition; the fourth is decidedly one too many, and the fifth is sensibly exasperating. The fonds, in a word, are very tiresome. It was, if I remember rightly, in the bottom of the last and widest of the series that I discovered the little town of Yport. Every little fishing village on the Norman coast has, within the last ten years, set up in business as a watering-place; and, though one might fancy that Nature had condemned Yport to modest obscurity, it is plain that she has no idea of being out of the fashion. But she is a miniature imitation of her rivals. She has a meagre little wood behind her and an evil-smelling beach, on which bathing is possible only at the highest tide. At the scorching midday hour at which I inspected her she seemed absolutely empty, and the ocean, beyond acres of slippery seaweed, looked very far away. She has everything that a properly appointed station de bains should have, but everything is on a Lilliputian scale. The whole place looked like a huge Nuremburg toy. There is a diminutive hotel, in which, properly, the head waiter should be a pigmy and the chambermaid a sprite, and beside it there is a Casino on the smallest possible scale. Everything about the Casino is so harmoniously undersized that it seems a matter of course that the newspapers in the reading-room should be printed in the very finest type. Of course there is a reading-room, and a dancing-room ,and a café, and a billiard-room, with a bagatelle board instead of a table, and a little terrace on which you may walk up and down with very short steps. I hope the prices are as tiny as everything else, and I suspect, indeed, that Yport honestly claims, not that she is attractive, but that she is cheap.

I toiled up the perpendicular cliff again, and took my way over the grass, for another hour, to Fécamp, where I found the peculiarities of Yport directly reversed. The place is a huge, straggling village, seated along a wide, shallow bay, and adorned, of course, with the classic Casino and the row of hotels. But all this is on a very brave scale, though it is not manifest that the bravery of Fécamp has won a victory; and, indeed, the local attractions did not strike me as irresistible. A pebbly beach of immense length, fenced off from the town by a grassy embankment; a Casino of a bold and unsociable aspect; a principal inn, with an interminable brown façade, suggestive somehow of an asylum or an almshouse—-such are the most striking features of this particular watering-place. There are magnificent cliffs on each side of the hay, but, as the French say, without impropriety, it is the devil to get to them. There was no one in the hotel, in the Casino, or on the beach; the whole town being in the act of climbing the further cliff, to reach the downs on which the races were to be held. The green hillside was black with trudging spectators and the long sky line was fretted with them. When I say there was no one at the inn, I forget the gentleman at the door who informed me positively that he would give me no breakfast; he seemed to have staid at home from the races expressly to give himself this pleasure. But I went further and fared better, and procured a meal of homely succulence, in an unfashionable tavern, in a back street, where the wine was sound, the cutlets tender, and the serving-maid rosy. Then I walked along—-for a mile, it seemed—-through a dreary, grey grand rue, where the sunshine was hot, the odours portentous, and the doorsteps garnished with aged fishwives, retired from business, whose plaited linen coifs looked picturesquely white, and their faces picturesquely brown. I inspected the harbour and it's goodly basin—-with nothing in it—-and certain pink and blue houses, which surround it, and then, joining the last stragglers, I clambered up the side of the cliff to the downs.

The races had already begun, and the ring of spectators was dense. I picked out some of the smallest people, looked over their heads, and saw several young farmers, in parti-coloured jackets, and very red in the face, bouncing up and down on handsome cart-horses. Satiated at last with this diversion, I turned away and wandered down the hill again; and after strolling through the streets of Fécamp, and gathering not a little of the wayside entertainment that a seaport and fishing town always yields, I repaired to the Abbey church, a monument of some importance, and almost as great an object of pride in the town as the Casino. The Abbey of Fécamp was once a very rich and powerful establishment, but nothing remains of it now save it's church and it's trappistine. The church, which is for the most part early Gothic, is very stately and picturesque, and the trappistine, which is a distilled liquor of the Chartreuse family, is much prized by people who take a little glass after their coffee. By the time I had done with the Abbey, the townsfolk had slid en masse down the cliff again, the yellow afternoon had come, and the holiday takers, before the wine-shops, made long and lively shadows. I hired a sort of two-wheeled gig, without a board, and drove back to Etretal in the rosy stage of evening. The gig dandled me up and down in a fashion of which I had been unconscious since I left off baby-clothes; but the drive, through the charming Norman country, over roads which lay among the peaceful meadows like paths amid a park, was altogether delightful. The sunset gave a deeper mellowness to the standing crops, and in the grassiest corner of the wayside villages the young men and maidens were dancing like the figures in vignette illustrations of classic poets.

II.

 

YOU may say there is nothing in this very commonplace adventure to sentimentalise about, and that when one plucks sentimentally a brand from the burning one should pick out a more valuable one. I certainly call it a picked day, at any rate, when I went to breakfast at St. Jouin, at the beautiful Ernestine's. Don't be alarmed; if I was just now too tame, I am not turning wild. The beautiful Ernestine is not my especial beauty, but every one's, and to contemplate her charms you have only to order breakfast. They shine forth the more brilliantly in proportion as your order is liberal, and Ernestine is beautiful according as your bill is large. In this case she comes and smiles, really very handsomely, around your table, and you feel some hesitation in accusing so well-favoured a person of extortion. She keeps an inn at the end of a lane which diverges from the high road between Etretal and Havre, and it is an indispensable feature of your “station” at the former place that you choose some fine morning and seek her hospitality. She has been a celebrity these twenty years, and is no longer a simple maiden in her flower; but twenty years, if they have diminished her early bloom, have richly augmented her museé. This is a collection of all the verses and sketches, the autographs, photographs, monographs, and trinkets presented to the amiable hostess by admiring tourists. It covers the walls of her sitting-room and fills half a dozen big albums which you look at while breakfast is being prepared, just as if you were awaiting dinner in genteel society. Most Frenchmen of the day whom one has heard of appear to have called at St. Jouin, and to have left their homages. Each of them has turned a compliment with pen or pencil, and you may see in a glass case on the parlour wall what Alexandre Dumas, Fils, thought of the landlady's nose, and how several painters measured her ankles.

Of course you must make this excursion in good company, and I affirm that I was in the very best. The company prefers, equally of course, to have it's breakfast in the orchard in front of the house; which, if the repast is good, will make it seem better still, and if it is poor, will carry off it's poorness. Clever innkeepers should always make their victims (in tolerable weather) eat in the garden. I forget whether Ernestine's breakfast was intrinsically good or bad, but I distinctly remember enjoying it, and making everything welcome. Everything, that is, save the party at the other table—-the Paris actresses and the American gentlemen. The combination of these two classes of persons, individually so delightful, results in certain phenomena which seem less in harmony with appleboughs and summer breezes than with the gas lamps and thick perfumes of a cabinet particulier, and yet it was characteristic of this odd mixture of things that Mlle. Ernestine, coming to chat with her customers, should bear a beautiful infant on her arm, and smile with artless pride on being assured of it's filial resemblance to herself. She looked decidedly handsome as she caressed this startling attribute of quiet spinsterhood.

St. Jouin is close to the sea and to the finest cliffs in the world. One of my companions, who had laden the carriage with his painting traps, went off into a sunny meadow to take the portrait of a windmill, and I, choosing the better portion, wandered through a little green valley with the other. Ten minutes brought us to the edge of the cliffs, which at this point of the coast are simply sublime. I had been thinking the white sea-walls of Etretal the finest thing conceivable in this way, but the huge red porphoritic-looking masses of St. Jouin have an even grander character. I have rarely seen anything more picturesque. They are strange, fantastic, out of keeping with the country, and for some rather arbitrary reason suggested to me a Spanish or even African landscape. Certain sun-scorched precipices in Spanish Sierras must have very much the same warmth of tone and desolation of attitude. A very picturesque feature of the cliffs of St. Jouin is that they are double in height, as one may say. Falling to an immense depth, they encounter a certain outward ledge, or terrace, where they pause and play a dozen fantastic tricks, such as piling up rocks into the likeness of needles and watch-towers; then they plunge again, and in another splendid sweep descend to the beach. There was something very impressive in the way their evil brows, looking as if they were all stained with blood and rust, were bent upon the blue expanse of the sleeping sea.

III.

 

IN a month of beautiful weather at Etretal, every day was not an excursion, but every day seemed indeed a picked day. For that matter, as I lay on the beach watching the procession of the easy-going hours, I took a good many mental excursions. The one, perhaps, on which I oftenest started was a comparison between French manners, French habits, French types, and those of my native land. These comparisons are not invidious; I don't conclude against one party and in favour of the other; as the French say, je constate simply. The French people about me were “spending the summer” just as I had so often seen my fellow countrymen spend it, and it seemed to me, as it had seemed to me at home, that this operation places men and women under a sort of monstrous magnifying glass. The human figure has a higher relief in the country than in town, and I know of no place where psychological studies prosper so as at the seaside. I shall not pretend to relate my observations in the order in which they occurred to me (or indeed to relate them in full at all); but I may say that one of the foremost was to this effect—-that the summer question, for every one, had been more easily settled than it usually is at home. The solution of the problem of where to go had not been a thin-petalled rose, plucked from among particularly sharp-pointed thorns. People presented themselves with a calmness and freshness very different from the haggard legacy of that fevered investigation which precedes the annual exodus of the American citizen and his family. This impression, with me, rests perhaps on the fact that most Frenchwomen turned of thirty—-the average wives and mothers—-are so comfortably fat. I have never seen such massive feminine charms as among the mature baigneuses of Etretal. The lean and desiccated person into whom a dozen years of matrimony so often converts the blooming American girl has no apparent correlative in the French race. A majestic plumpness flourished all around me—-the plumpness of triple chins and deeply dimpled hands. I mused upon it, and I concluded that it was the result of the best breakfasts and dinners in the world. It was the corpulence of ladies who are thoroughly well fed, and who never walk a step that they can spare. The assiduity with which the women of America measure the length of our democratic pavements is doubtless a factor in their frequent absence of redundancy of outline. As a “regular boarder” at the Hotel Blanquet—-pronounced by Anglo-Saxon visitors Blanket—-I found myself initiated into the mysteries of the French dietary system. I assent to the common tradition that the French are a temperate people, so long as it is understood in this sense—-that they eat no more than they want to. But they want to eat so much. Their capacity strikes me as enormous, and we ourselves, if we are less regulated, are certainly much more slender consumers.

The American breakfast has, I believe, long been a subject of irony to the foreign observer; but the American breakfast is an ascetic meal compared with the French déjeuner à la fourchette. The latter, indeed, is simply a dinner without soup; it differs neither generically nor specifically from the evening repast. If it excludes soup, it includes eggs, prepared in a hundred forms; and if it proscribes champagne, it admits beer in foaming pitchers, so that the balance is fairly preserved. I think it is rarely that an American will not feel a certain sympathetic heaviness in the reflection that a French family that sits down at half past eleven to fish and entrees and roasts, to asparagus and beans, to salad and dessert, and cheese and coffee, proposes to do exactly the same thing at dinner time. But we may be sure at any rate that the dinner will be as good as the breakfast, and that the breakfast has nothing to fear from prospective comparison with the dinner; and we may further reflect that in a country where eating is a peculiarly unalloyed pleasure it is natural that this pleasure should be prolonged and reiterated. Nothing is more noticeable among the French than their superior intelligence in dietary matters; every one seems naturally a judge, a dilettante. They have analysed tastes and savours to a finer point than we; they are aware of differences and relations of which we take no heed. Observe a Frenchman of any age and of any station (I have been quite as much struck with it in the very young men as in the old) as he orders his breakfast or his dinner at a Parisian restaurant, and you will perceive that the operation is much more solemn than it is apt to be in New York or in London. (In London, indeed, it is intellectually positively brutal.) Monsieur has, in a word, a certain ideal for that particular repast, and it will make a difference in his happiness whether the kidneys, for instance, of a certain style, are chopped to the ultimate or only to the penultimate smallness. His directions and admonitions to the waiter are therefore minute and exquisite, and eloquently accentuated by the pressure of thumb and forefinger; and it must be added that the imagination of the waiter is usually quite worthy of the refined communion thus opened to it.

This subtler sense of quality is observable even among those classes in which in other countries it is generally forestalled by a depressing consciousness on the subject of quantity. Watch your Parisian porter and his wife at their mid-day meal, as you pass up and down stairs. They are not satisfying nature upon green tea and potatoes; they are seated before a meal which has been reasoned out, which, on it's modest scale, is served in courses, and has a beginning, a middle, and an end. I will not say that the French sense of comfort is confined to the philosophy of nutrition, but it is certainly higher at this point (and perhaps one other) than it is elsewhere. French people must have a good dinner and a good bed; but they are willing that the bed should be stationed and the dinner be eaten in the most unpleasant neighbourhoods. Your porter and his wife dine grandly and sleep soft in their lodge, but their lodge is in all probability a fetid black hole, five feet square, in which, in England or in America, people of their talents would never consent to live. French people consent to live in the dark, to huddle together, to forego privacy, and to let bad smells grow great among them. They have an accursed passion for coquettish furniture: for cold, brittle chairs, for tables with scalloped edges, for ottomans without backs, for fireplaces muffled in plush and fringe and about as cheerful as a festooned hearse. A French bedroom is a bitter mockery—-a ghastly attempt to serve two masters which succeeds in being agreeable to neither. It is a thing of traps and delusions, constructed on the assumption that it is inelegant to be known to wash or to sleep, and yet pervaded with suggestions of uncleanness compared with which a well-wrung bathing sponge, well en evidence, is a delightful symbol of purity. This comes of course from that supreme French quality, the source of half the charm of the French mind as well of all it's dryness, the genius for economy. It is wasting a room to let it be a bedroom alone; so it must be tricked out as an ingeniously contrived sitting-room, and ends by being (in many cases) insufferable, both by night and by day. But allowing all weight to these latter reflections, it is still very possible that the French have the better part. If you are well fed, you can perhaps afford to be ill lodged; whereas, I doubt whether enjoyment of the most commodious apartments is compatible with inanition and dyspepsia.

IV.

 

IF I had not cut short my mild retrospect by these possibly milder generalizations, I should have touched lightly upon some of the social phenomena of which the little beach at Etretal was the scene. I shall have narrated that the French, at the seaside, are not “sociable” as Americans affect to be in a similar situation, and I should subjoin that at Etretal it was very well on the whole that they were not. The immeasurably greater simplicity of composition of American society makes sociability with us a comparatively untaxed virtue; but anything like an equal exercise of it in France would be attended with alarming perils and inconveniences. Sociability (in the American sense of the word) in any aristocratic country would indeed be very much like an attempt to establish visiting relations between birds and fishes. At Etretal no making of acquaintance was observable; people went about in compact, cohesive groups, of natural formation, governed doubtless, internally, by humane regulation, but presenting to the world an impenetrable defensive front. These groups usually formed a solid phalanx about two or three young girls, compressed into the centre, the preservation of whose innocence was their chief solicitude. Here, doubtless, the groups were acting wisely, for with half a dozen cocottes, in scarlet petticoats, scattered over the sunny, harmless looking beach, what were mammas and duennas to do? In order that there should be a greater number of approachable-irreproachable young girls in France there must first be a smaller number of cocottes. It is not impossible, indeed, that if the approachable-irreproachable young ladies were more numerous, the cocottes would be less numerous. If by some ingenious sumptuary enactment the latter class could be sequestrated or relegated to the background for a certain period—-say ten years—-the latter might increase and multiply, and quite, in vulgar parlance, get the start of it.

And yet after all this is a rather superficial reflection, for the excellent reason that the very narrow peep at life allowed to young French girls is not regarded, either by the young girls themselves or by those who have their felicity most at heart, as a grave privation. The case is not nearly so hard as it would be with us, for there is this immense difference between the lot of the jeune fille and her American sister, that the former may as a general thing be said to be certain to marry. “Ay, to marry ill,” the Anglo-Saxon objector may reply. But the objection is precipitate; for if French marriages are almost always arranged, it must be added that they are in the majority of cases arranged well. Therefore, if a jeune fille is for three or four years tied with a very short rope and compelled to browse exclusively upon the meagre herbage which sprouts in the maternal shadow, she has at least the comfort of reflecting that according to the native phrase, on s'occupe de la marier—-that measures are being carefully taken to promote her to a condition of unbounded liberty. Whatever, to her imagination, marriage may fail to mean, it at least means freedom and consideration. It does not mean, as it so often means in America, being socially shelved—-and it is not too much to say, in certain circles, degraded; it means being socially launched and consecrated. It means becoming that exalted personage, a mère de famille. To be a mère de famille is to occupy not simply (as is rather the case with us) a sentimental, but a really official position. The consideration, the authority, the domestic pomp and circumstance allotted to a French mamma are in striking contrast with the amiable tolerance which in our own social order is so often the most liberal measure that the female parent may venture to expect at her children's hands, and which, on the part of the young lady of eighteen who represents the family in society, is not infrequently tempered by a conscientious severity. All this is worth waiting for, especially if you have not to wait very long. Mademoiselle is married certainly, and married early, and she is sufficiently well informed to know, and to be sustained by the knowledge, that the sentimental expansion which may not take place at present will have an open field after her marriage. That it should precede her marriage seems to her as unnatural as that she should put on her shoes before her stockings. And besides all this, to browse in the maternal shadow is not considered in the least a hardship. A young French girl who is bien élevée —-an expression which means so much—-will be sure to consider her mother's company the most delightful in the world, and to think that the herbage which sprouts about this lady's petticoats is peculiarly tender and succulent. It may be fanciful, but it often seems to me that the tone with which such a young girl says Ma mère has a peculiar intensity of meaning. I am at least not wrong in affirming that in the accent with which the mamma—-especially if she be of the well-rounded order alluded to above—-speaks of Ma fille there is a kind of sacerdotal dignity.

V.

 

AFTER this came two or three pictures of quite another complexion—-pictures of which a long green valley, almost in the centre of France, makes the general setting. The valley itself, indeed, forms one delightful picture, although the country which surrounds it is by no means a show region. It is the old region of the Gâtinais, which has plenty of history, but no great beauty. It is very still, deliciously rural, and immitigably French. Normandy is Norman, Gascony is Gascon, but this is France itself—-the typical, average, “pleasant" France of history, literature, and art—-of art, of landscape art, perhaps, especially. Wherever I look in the country I seem to see one of the familiar pictures on a dealer's wall—-a Lambinet, a Troyon, a Daubigny, a Diaz. The Lambinets perhaps are in the majority; the mood of the landscape usually expresses itself in silvery lights and vivid greens. The history of this part of France is the history of the monarchy, and it's language is, I won't say absolutely the classic tongue, but a nearer approach to it than any local patois. The peasants deliver themselves with rather a drawl, but what they speak is good clean French that any cockney can understand, which is more than can be said sometimes for the violent jargon that emanates from the fishing folk of Etretal.

Each side of the long valley is a long low ridge, which offers it a high, bosky horizon, and through the middle of it there flows a charming stream, wandering, winding, and doubling, smothered here and there in rocks, and spreading into lily-coated reaches, beneath the clear shadow of tall, straight, light-leaved trees. On each side of the stream the meadows stretch away flat, clean, and magnificent, lozenged across with rows of sober foliage under which a cow-maiden sits on the grass hooting now and then, nasally, to the large uddered browsers in front of her. There are no hedges, nor palings, nor walls; it is all a single estate. Here and there in the meadows stands a cluster of red-roofed hovels—-each a diminutive village. At other points, at about half an hour's walk apart, are three charming old houses. The chateaux are extremely different, but, both picturesquely and conveniently, each has it's points. They are very intimate with each other, so that these points may be amicably discussed. The points in one case, however, are remarkably strong. The chateau stands directly in the little river I have mentioned, on an island just great enough to hold it, and the garden flowers grow upon the further bank. This, of course, is a most delightful affair. But I found something very agreeable in the aspect of one of the others, when I made it the goal of certain of those walks before breakfast which of cool mornings in the late summer do not fall into the category of ascetic pleasures. (In France, indeed, if one did not do a great many things before breakfast, the work of life would be but meagrely performed.)

The dwelling in question stands on the top of the long ridge which encloses the comfortable valley to the south, being by it's position quite in the midst of it's appurtenant acres. It is not particularly “kept up", but it's quiet rustiness and untrimmedness only help it to be picturesque. A grassy plateau approaches it from the edge of the hill, bordered on one side by a short avenue of horse-chestnuts, and on the other by a dusky wood. Beyond the chestnuts are the steep-roofed, yellow-walled farm buildings, and under cover of the wood a stretch of beaten turf, where, on Sundays and holidays, the farm-servants play at bowls. Directly before the chateau is a little square garden enclosed by a low stone parapet, interrupted by a high gateway of mossy pillars and iron arabesques, the whole of it overclambered by flowering vines. The house, with it's yellow walls and russet roof, is ample and substantial; it is a very proper gentilhommière. In a corner of the garden, at the angle of the parapet, rises that classic emblem of rural gentility, the pigeonnier, the old stone dovecote. It is a great round tower, as broad of base as a lighthouse, with it's roof shaped like an extinguisher, and a big hole in it's upper portion, in and out of which a dove is always fluttering.

You see all this from the windows of the drawing-room. Be sure that the drawing-room is panelled in white and grey, with old rococo moulding over the doorways and mantelpiece. The open garden gateway, with it's tangled vines, makes a frame for the picture that lies beyond the little grassy esplanade where the thistles have been suffered to grow around a disused stone well, placed at quaint remoteness from the house (if, indeed, it is not a relic of an earlier habitation), a picture of a wide green country rising beyond the unseen valley, and stretching away to a far horizon in deep blue lines of wood. Behind, through other windows, you look out on the gardens proper. There are places that take one's fancy by some accident of expression, by some mystery of accident. This one is high and breezy, both sunny and shady, plain yet picturesque, extremely cheerful, and a little melancholy. It has what in the arts is called “style,” and so it took mine.

Going to call on the peasants was as charming an affair as a chapter in one of George Sand's rural tales. I went one Sunday morning with my hostess, who knew them well and engaged their most garrulous confidence. I don't mean that they told her all their secrets, but they told her a good many; if the French peasant is a simpleton, he is a very shrewd simpleton. At any rate, of a Sunday morning in August, when he is stopping at home from work, and he has put on his best jacket and trowsers, and is loafing at the door of his neighbour's cabin, he is a very charming person. The peasantry in the region I speak of had admirably good manners. The curé gave me a low account of their morals; by which he meant, on the whole, I suspect, that they were moderate church-goers. But they have the instinct of civility and a talent for conversation; they know how to play the host and the entertainer. By “he,” just now, I meant she quite as much; it is rare that, in speaking superlatively of the French, in any connection, one does not think of the women even more than of the men. They constantly strike the foreigner as a stronger expression of the qualities of the race. On the occasion I speak of the first room in the very humble cabins I successively visited—-in some cases, evidently, it was the only room—-had been set into irreproachable order for the day. It had usually a sort of brown-toned picturesqueness, begotten of the high chimney-place, with it's swinging pots, the important bed, in it's dusky niche, with it's flowered curtains, the big-bellied earthenware on the cupboard, the long-legged clock in the corner, the thick, quiet light of the small, deeply set window; the mixture, on all things, of smoke-stain and the polish of horny hands. Into the midst of this “la Rabillon” or “la Mère Léger” brings forward her chairs and begs us to be seated, and seating herself, with crossed hands, smiles handsomely and answers abundantly all questions about her cow, her husband, her bees, her eggs, and her last-born. The men linger half outside and half in, with their shoulders against dressers and door-posts; every one smiles, with that simple, clear-eyed smile of the gratified peasant; they talk much more like George Sand's Berrichons than might be supposed. And if they receive us without gross awkwardness, they speed us on our way with proportionate urbanity. I go to six or eight little hovels, all of them dirty outside and clean within; I am entertained everywhere with the bonhomie, the quaintness, the good faces and good manners of their occupants, and I finish my tour with an esteem for my new acquaintance which is not diminished by learning that several of them have thirty or forty thousand francs securely laid by.

And yet, as I say, M. le Curé thinks they are in a bad way, and he knows something about them. M. le Curé, too, is not a dealer in scandal; there is something delightfully quaint in the way in which he deprecates an un-Christian construction of his words. There is more than one curé in the valley whose charms I celebrate; but the worthy priest of whom I speak is the pearl of the local priesthood. He has been accused, I believe, of pretentions to what is called illuminisme; but even in his most illuminated moments it can never occur to him that he has been chronicled in an American magazine, and therefore it is not indiscreet to say that he is the curé, not of Gy, but of the village nearest to Gy. I write this sentence half for the pleasure of putting down that briefest of village names and seeing how it looks in print. But it may be elongated at will, and yet be only improved. If you wish to be very specific, you may call it Gy-les-Nonnains—-Gy of the Little Nuns. I went with my hostess, another morning, to call upon M. le Curé, who himself opened his garden door to us (there was a crooked little black cross perched upon it), and, lifting his rusty calotte, stood there a moment in the sunshine, smiling a greeting more benignant than words.

A rural presbytère is not a very sumptuous dwelling, and M. le Curé's little drawing room reminded me of a Yankee parlour (minus the subscription books from Hartford, on the centre-table) in some out-of-the-way corner of New England. But he took us into his very diminutive garden, and showed us an ornament that would not have flourished in the shade of a Yankee parlour—-a rude stone image of the Virgin, which he had become possessed of I know not how, and for which he was building a sort of niche in the wall. The work was going on slowly, for he must take the labour as he could get it; but he appealed to his visitors, with a smile of indulgent irony, for an assurance that his little structure would not make too bad a figure. One of them told him that she would send him some white flowers to set out round his statue; whereupon he clasped his hands together over his snuff-box and expressed cheerful views of the world we live in. A couple of days afterward he came to breakfast, and, of course, he arrived early, in his new cassock and band. I found him in the billiard-room, walking up and down alone, and reading his breviary. The combination of the locality, the personage, and the occupation made me smile; and I smiled again when, after breakfast, I found him walking up and down the garden, puffing a cigarette. Of course he had an excellent appetite; but there is something rather cruel in those alternations of diet to which the French parish priest is subjected. At home he lives like a peasant—-a fact which, in itself, is not particularly cruel, inasmuch as he is usually a peasant born. But his fellow peasants don't breakfast at the chateau and gaze adown the savoury vistas opened by cutlets à la Soubise. They have not the acute pain of being turned back into the stale atmosphere of bread and beans. Of course it is by no means every day or every week even that M. le Curé breakfasts at the chateau; but there must nevertheless be a certain uncomfortable crookedness in his position. He lives like a labourer, and yet he is treated like a gentleman. The latter character must seem to him sometimes a rather heavy irony on the other. But to the ideal curé, of course, all characters are equal; he thinks neither too ill of his bad breakfasts, nor too well of his good ones. I won't say that the excellent man I speak of is the ideal curé, but I suspect he is an approach to it; he has a grain of epicureanism to an ounce of stoicism. In the garden path, beside the moat, while he puffed his cigarette, he told me how he had held up his head to the Prussians; for, hard as it seemed to believe it, that pastoral valley had been occupied by ravaging Teutons. According to this recital, he had spoken his mind civilly, but most distinctly, to the group of officers who had made themselves at home in his dwelling—-had informed them that it grieved him profoundly that he was obliged to meet them standing there in his cassock, and not out in the fields with a musket in his hands and a dozen congenial spirits at his side. The scene must have been picturesque. The first of the officers got up from table and asked for the privilege of shaking his hand. “M. le Curé,” he said, “j'estime hautement votre caractère.”

Six miles away—-or nearer, by a charming shaded walk along a canal—-was an ancient town with a legend—-a legend which, as a child, I read in my lesson-book at school, marvelling at the wood-cut above it, in which a ferocious dog was tearing a strange man to pieces, while the king and his courtiers sat by as if they were at the circus. I allude to it chiefly in order to mention the name of one of it's promenades, which is the stateliest, beyond all comparison, in the world; the name, I mean, not the street. The latter is called Les Belles Manières. Could anything be finer than that? With what a sweep gentlemen must once have taken off their hats there how ladies must once have curtsied, regardless of gutters, and how people must have turned up their toes as they walked!

VI.

 

MY next impressions were gathered on the margin of a southern sea—-if the Bay of Biscay indeed deserves so soft-sounding a name. We generally have a mental image beforehand of a place we think of going to, and I supposed I had a tolerably vivid prevision of Biarritz. I don't know why, but I had a singular sense of having been there; the name always seemed to me expressive. I saw the way it lay along it's gleaming beach; I had taken in imagination the long walks toward Spain over the low cliffs, with the blue sea always to my right, and the blue Pyrenees always before me. My only fear was that my mental picture was not brilliant enough; but this could easily be touched up on the spot. In truth, however, I was exclusively occupied in toning it down. Biarritz seemed to be decidedly below it's reputation; I am at a loss to see how it's reputation was made. There is a partial explanation that is obvious enough. There is a low, square, bare brick mansion seated on the sands, under shelter of a cliff; it is one of the first objects to attract the attention of an arriving stranger. It is not picturesque, it is not romantic, and even in the days of it's prosperity it never can have been impressive. It is called the Villa Eugénie, and it explains in a great measure, as I say, the Biarritz which the arriving stranger, with some dismay, perceives about him. It has the aspect of one of the “cottages” of Newport during the winter season, and is surrounded by an even scantier umbrage than usually flourishes in the vicinity of those establishments. It was what the newspapers call the “favourite resort” of the ex-Empress of the French, who might have been seen at her imperial avocations with a good glass at any time from the Casino. The Casino, I hasten to add, has quite the air of an establishment frequented by gentlemen who look on ladies windows with telescopes. There are Casinos and Casinos, and that of Biarritz is, in the summary French phrase, “impossible.” Except for it's view, it is moreover very unattractive. Perched on the top of a cliff which has just space enough to hold it's immense brick foundations, it has no garden, no promenade, no shade, no place of out-of-door reunion—-the most indispensable feature of a Casino. It turns it's back to the Pyrenees and to Spain, and looks out prettily enough over a blue ocean to an arm of the low French coast.

Biarritz, for the rest, scrambles over two or three steep hills, directly above the sea, in a promiscuous, many-coloured, noisy fashion. It is a watering-place, pure and simple; every house has an expensive little shop in the basement, and a still more expensive set of rooms to let above stairs. The houses are blue, and pink, and green; they stick to the hillsides as they can, and being near Spain, you try to fancy they look Spanish. You succeed perhaps, even a little, and are rewarded for your zeal by finding, when you cross the border a few days afterward, that the houses at San Sebastian look strikingly French. Biarritz is bright, crowded, irregular, filled with many sounds, and not without a certain second-rate picturesqueness; but it struck me as common and cocknified, and my vision travelled back to modest little Etretal, by it's northern sea, as to a more truly delectable resting-place. The south-western coast of France has little of the exquisite charm of the Mediterranean shore. It has of course a southern expression which in itself is always delightful. You see a brilliant, yellow sun, with a pink-faced, red-tiled house staring up at it. You can see here and there a trellis and an orange tree, a peasant woman in gold necklace, driving a donkey, a lame beggar adorned with ear-rings, a glimpse of blue sea between white garden walls. But the superabundant detail of the French Riviera is wanting; the softness, luxuriousness, enchantment.

The most picturesque thing at Biarritz is the Basque population, which overflows from the adjacent Spanish provinces and swarms in the crooked streets. It lounges all day in the public places, sprawls upon the kerbstones, clings to the face of the cliffs, and vociferates continually in a shrill, strange tongue, which has no discoverable affinity with any other. The Basques look like the hardier and thriftier Neapolitan lazzaroni; if the superficial resemblance is striking, the difference is very much in their favour. Although those specimens which I observed at Biarritz appeared to enjoy an excess of leisure, they had nothing of a shiftless or beggarly air, and seemed as little disposed to ask favours as to confer them. The roads leading into Spain were dotted with them, and here they were coming and going as if on important business—-the business of the abominable Don Carlos himself. They struck me as a very handsome race. The men are invariably clean shaved; smooth chins seem a positively religious observance. They wear little round, maroon-coloured caps, like those of sailor-boys, dark stuff shifts, and curious white shoes, made of strips of rope laid together—-an article of toilet which makes them look like honorary members of base-ball clubs. They sling their jackets, cavalier fashion, over one shoulder, hold their heads very high, swing their arms very bravely, step out very lightly, and when you meet them in the country at eventide, charging down a hillside in companies of half a dozen, make altogether a most impressive appearance. With their smooth chins and childish caps, they may be taken, in the distance, for a lot of very naughty little boys. They have always a cigarette in their teeth.

The best thing at Biarritz is your opportunity for driving over into Spain. Coming speedily to a consciousness of this fact, I found a charm in sitting in a landau and rolling away to San Sebastian, behind a driver in a high glazed hat with long streamers, a jacket of scarlet and silver, and a pair of yellow breeches and of jack-boots. if it has been the desire of one's heart and the dream of one's life to visit the land of Cervantes, even grazing it so lightly as by a day's excursion from Biarritz is a matter to set one romancing. Everything helping—-the admirable scenery, the charming day, my operatic coachman, and smooth-rolling carriage—-I am afraid I romanced more than it is decent to tell of. You face toward the beautifully outlined mass of the Pyrenees, as if you were going to plunge straight into them, but in reality you travel beneath them and beside them; you pass between their expiring spurs and the sea. It is on proceeding beyond San Sebastian that you seriously attack them. But they are already extremely picturesque—-none the less so that in this region they abound in suggestion of the recent Carlist war. Their far-away peaks and ridges are crowned with lonely Spanish watch-towers and their lower slopes are dotted with demolished dwellings. It was hereabouts that the fighting was most constant. But the healing powers of nature are as remarkable as the destructive powers of man, and the rich September landscape appeared already to have forgotten the injuries of yesterday. Everything seemed to me a savoury foretaste of Spain. I discovered an unconscionable amount of local colour. I discovered it at St. Jean de Luz, the last French town, in a great brown church, filled with galleries and boxes, like a playhouse—-the altar and chair, indeed, looked very much like a proscenium; at Bohebia, on the Bidassoa, the small yellow stream which divides France from Spain, and which at this point offers to view the celebrated Isle of Pheasants, a little bushy strip of earth adorned with a decayed commemorative monument, on which, in the seventeenth century, the affairs of Louis XIV. and his brother monarch were discussed in ornamental conference; at Fuentarabia (glorious name), a mouldering relic of Spanish stateliness; at Hondaye, at Irun, at Renteria, and finally at San Sebastian. At all of these wayside towns the houses show marks of Alphonsist bullets (the region was strongly Carlist); but to be riddled and battered seems to carry out the meaning of the pompous old escutcheons carven above the doorways, some of them covering almost half the house. It seemed to me, in fact, that the narrower and shabbier was the poor little dusky dwelling, the grander and more elaborate was this noble advertisement. But it stood for knightly prowess, and pitiless Time had taken up the challenge. I found it fine work to rumble through the narrow single street of Irun and Renteria, between the strange-coloured houses, the striped awnings, the universal balconies, and the heraldic doorways.

San Sebastian is a lively watering-place, and is set down in the guidebooks as the Biarritz or the Brighton of Spain. It has of course a new quarter in the provincial-elegant style (fresh stucco cafes, barber shops, and apartments to let), looking out upon a planted promenade and a charming bay, locked in fortified heights, with a narrow portal to the ocean. I walked about for two or three hours, and devoted most of my attention to the old quarter, the town proper, which has a great frowning gate upon the harbour, through which you look along a vista of gaudy house fronts, balconies, and awnings, surmounted by a narrow strip of sky. Here the local colour was richer, the manners more naïf. Here too was a church with a flamboyant Jesuit façade and an interior redolent of Spanish Catholicism. There was a life-sized effigy of the Virgin perched upon a table beside the great altar (she appeared to have been walking abroad in a procession), whom I looked at with extreme interest. She seemed to me a heroine, a solid Spanish person, as perfect a reality as Don Quixote or St. Theresa. She was dressed in an extraordinary splendour of laces, brocades, and jewels, her coiffure and complexion were of the finest, and she evidently would answer to her name if you spoke to her. Improving the stateliest title I could think of, I addressed her as Doña Maria of the Holy Office; whereupon she looked round the great dusky, perfumed church, to see whether we were alone, and then she dropped her fringed eyelids and held out her hand to be kissed. She was the Sentiment of Spanish Catholicism: gloomy, yet bedizened, emotional as a woman, and yet mechanical as a doll. After a moment I grew afraid of her, and went slinking away. After this I didn't really recover my spirits until I had the satisfaction of hearing myself addressed as “Cabellero.” I was hailed with this epithet by a ragged infant, with sickly eyes and a cigarette in his lips, who invited me to cast a copper into the sea, that he might dive for it; and even with these limitations, the sensation seemed worth the cost of my excursion. It appeared kinder, to my gratitude, to make the infant dive upon the pavement.

A few days later I went back to San Sebastian, to witness a bull fight; but I suppose my right to descant upon this entertainment should be measured less by the gratification it afforded me than by the question whether there is room in literature for another bull fight. I incline to think there is not; the Spanish diversion is the best described thing in the world. Besides, there are other reasons for not describing it. It is extremely disgusting, and one should not describe disgusting things—-except (according to the new school) in novels, when they have not really occurred, and are manufactured on purpose. But one has taken a certain sort of pleasure in the bull fight, and yet how is one to state gracefully that one has taken pleasure in a disgusting thing? It is a hard case. If you record your pleasure, distinctly, you seem to exaggerate it and to calumniate your delicacy; and if you record nothing but your displeasure, you feel rather crabbed and stingy. This much I can say, at any rate, that as there had been no bull fights in that part of the country during the Carlist war, the native dilettanti (and every man, woman, and child of them comes under this denomination) returned to their previous pastime with peculiar zest. The spectacle, therefore, had an unusual splendour. Under these circumstances it is highly picturesque. The weather was beautiful; the near mountains peeped over the top of the vast open arena, as if they too were curious; weary of disembowelled horses and posturing espadas, the spectator (in the boxes) might turn away and look through an unglazed window at the empty town and the cloud-shadowed sea. But few of the native spectators availed themselves of this privilege. Beside me sat a blooming matron, in a white lace mantilla, with three very juvenile daughters; and if these ladies sometimes yawned, they never shivered. For myself, I confess that if I sometimes shivered, I never yawned. A long list of bulls was sacrificed, each of whom had pretentions to originality. The banderillos, in their silk stockings and embroidered satin costumes, skipped about with a great deal of elegance; the espada folded his arms, within six inches of the bull's nose, and stared him out of countenance; but I thought the bull, in any case, a finer fellow than any of his tormentors, and I thought his tormentors finer fellows than the spectators. In truth, we were all, for the time, rather sorry fellows together. A bull fight will, to a certain extent, bear looking at, but it will not bear thinking of. There was a more innocent picturesqueness in what I saw afterward, when we all came away, in the late afternoon, as the shadows were at their longest the bright-coloured southern crowd, spreading itself over the grass, and the women, with mantillas and fans, strolling up along before the mountains and the sea.

 
 
 

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