Charles Dickens ~ Travel in France

DMdJ Neu1On a fine Sunday morning in the midsummer time and weather of eighteen hundred and forty-four it was, my good friend, when—don’t be alarmed; not when two travellers might have been observed slowly making their way over that picturesque and broken ground by which the first chapter of a Middle Age novel is usually attained—but when an English travelling carriage of considerable proportions, fresh from the shady halls of the Pantechnicon near Belgrave Square, London, was observed (by a very small French soldier, for I saw him look at it) to issue from the gate of the Hôtel Meurice in the Rue Rivoli at Paris.

I am no more bound to explain why the English family travelling by this carriage, inside and out, should be starting for Italy on a Sunday morning, of all good days in the week, than I am to assign a reason for all the little men in France being soldiers and all the big men postilions, which is the invariable rule. But they had some sort of reason for what they did, I have no doubt, and their reason for being there at all was, as you know, that they were going to live in fair Genoa for a year; and that the head of the family purposed in that space of time to stroll about wherever his restless humor carried him.

And it would have been small comfort to me to have explained to the population of Paris generally that I was that Head and Chief, and not the radiant embodiment of good-humor who sat beside me in the person of a French courier,—best of servants and most beaming of men. Truth to say, he looked a great deal more patriarchal than I, who, in the shadow of his portly presence, dwindled down to no account at all.

There was, of course, very little in the aspect of Paris—as we rattled near the dismal Morgue and over the Pont Neuf—to reproach us for our Sunday travelling. The wine-shops (every second house) were driving a roaring trade; awnings were spreading, and chairs and tables arranging, outside the cafés, preparatory to the eating of ices and drinking of cool liquids later in the day; shoeblacks were busy on the bridges; shops were open; carts and wagons clattered to and fro; the narrow, uphill, funnel-like streets across the river were so many dense perspectives of crowd and bustle, parti-colored nightcaps, tobacco pipes, blouses, large boots, and shaggy heads of hair; nothing at that hour denoted a day of rest, unless it were the appearance, here and there, of a family pleasure-party, crammed into a bulky old lumbering cab, or of some contemplative holiday-maker in the freest and easiest dishabille, leaning out of a low garret window, watching the drying of his newly-polished shoes on the little parapet outside (if a gentleman), or the airing of her stockings in the sun (if a lady), with calm anticipation.

Once clear of the never-to-be-forgotten-or-forgiven pavement which surrounds Paris, the first three days of travelling towards Marseilles are quiet and monotonous enough. To Sens. To Avallon. To Châlons. A sketch of one day’s proceedings is a sketch of all three, and here it is.

We have four horses and one postilion, who has a very long whip, and drives his team something like the courier of St. Petersburg in the circle at Astley’s or Franconi’s, only he sits his own horse instead of standing on him. The immense jack-boots worn by these postilions are sometimes a century or two old, and are so ludicrously disproportionate to the wearer’s foot that the spur, which is put where his own heel comes, is generally half-way up the leg of the boots. The man often comes out of the stable-yard with his whip in his hand and his shoes on, and brings out, in both hands, one boot at a time, which he plants on the ground by the side of his horse with great gravity, until everything is ready. When it is—and oh, Heaven! the noise they make about it!—he gets into the boots, shoes and all, or is hoisted into them by a couple of friends; adjusts the rope harness, embossed by the labors of innumerable pigeons in the stables; makes all the horses kick and plunge; cracks his whip like a madman; shouts “En route—hi!” and away we go. He is sure to have a contest with his horse before we have gone very far; and then he calls him a thief, and a brigand, and a pig, and what not, and beats him about the head as if he were made of wood.

There is little more than one variety in the appearance of the country for the first two days,—from a dreary plain to an interminable avenue, and from an interminable avenue to a dreary plain again. Plenty of vines there are, in the open fields, but of a short, low kind, and not trained in festoons, but about straight sticks. Beggars innumerable there are, everywhere, but an extraordinarily scanty population and fewer children than I ever encountered. I don’t believe we saw a hundred children between Paris and Châlons. Queer old towns, drawbridged and walled, with odd little towers at the angles, like grotesque faces, as if the wall had put a mask on, and were staring down into the moat; other strange little towers, in gardens and fields, and down lanes and in farm-yards; all alone, and always round, with a peaked roof, and never used for any purpose at all; ruinous buildings of all sorts; sometimes an hôtel de ville, sometimes a guard-house, sometimes a dwelling-house, sometimes a château with a rank garden, prolific in dandelion, and watched over by extinguisher-topped turrets and blink-eyed little casements, are the standard objects, repeated over and over again.

Sometimes we pass a village inn, with a crumbling wall belonging to it, and a perfect town of out-houses; and painted over the gate-way, “Stabling for sixty horses,” as indeed there might be stabling for sixty score, were there any horses to be stabled there, or anybody resting there, or anything stirring about the place but a dangling bush, indicative of the wine inside, which flutters idly in the wind, in lazy keeping with everything else, and certainly is never in a green old age, though always so old as to be dropping to pieces. And all day long strange little narrow wagons, in strings of six or eight, bringing cheese from Switzerland, and frequently in charge, the whole line, of one man, or even boy,—and he very often asleep in the foremost cart,—come jingling past; the horses drowsily ringing the bells upon their harness, and looking as if they thought (no doubt they do) their great blue woolly furniture, of immense weight and thickness, with a pair of grotesque horns growing out of the collar, very much too warm for the midsummer weather.

Then there is the diligence, twice or thrice a day, with the dusty outsides in blue frocks, like butchers; and the insides in white nightcaps; and its cabriolet head on the roof, nodding and shaking like an idiot’s head; and its Young-France passengers staring out of window, with beards down to their waists, and blue spectacles awfully shading their warlike eyes, and very big sticks clinched in their national grasp. Also the malle-poste, with only a couple of passengers, tearing along at a real good daredevil pace, and out of sight in no time. Steady old curés come jolting past, in such ramshackle, musty, rusty, clattering coaches as no Englishman would believe in; and bony women dawdle about in solitary places, holding cows by ropes while they feed, or digging and hoeing, or doing field-work of a more laborious kind, or representing real shepherdesses with their flocks,—to obtain an adequate idea of which pursuit and its followers, in any country, it is only necessary to take any pastoral poem, or picture, and imagine to yourself whatever is most exquisitely and widely unlike the descriptions therein contained.

You have been travelling along, stupidly enough, as you generally do in the last stage of the day; and the ninety-six bells upon the horses—twenty-four apiece—have been ringing sleepily in your ears for half an hour or so; and it has become a very jog-trot, monotonous, tiresome sort of business; and you have been thinking deeply about the dinner you will have at the next stage; when down at the end of the long avenue of trees through which you are travelling the first indication of a town appears, in the shape of some straggling cottages; and the carriage begins to rattle and roll over a horribly uneven pavement, … and here we are in the yard of the Hôtel de l’Écu d’Or….

The landlady of the Hôtel de l’Écu d’Or is here; and the landlord of the Hôtel de l’Écu d’Or is here; and the femme de chambre of the Hôtel de l’Écu d’Or is here; and a gentleman in a glazed cap, with a red beard like a bosom friend, who is staying at the Hôtel de l’Écu d’Or, is here; and Monsieur le Curé is walking up and down in a corner of the yard by himself, with a shovel-hat upon his head, and a black gown on his back, and a book in one hand, and an umbrella in the other; and everybody, except Monsieur le Curé, is open-mouthed and open-eyed for the opening of the carriage-door. The landlord of the Hôtel de l’Écu d’Or dotes to that extent upon the courier that he can hardly wait for his coming down from the box, but embraces his very legs and boot-heels as he descends. “My courier! My brave courier! My friend! My brother!” The landlady loves him, the femme de chambre blesses him, the garçon worships him.

The courier asks if his letter has been received. It has, it has. Are the rooms prepared? They are, they are. The best rooms for my noble courier. The rooms of state for my gallant courier; the whole house is at the service of my best of friends! He keeps his hand upon the carriage-door, and asks some other question to enhance the expectation. He carries a green leathern purse outside his coat, suspended by a belt. The idlers look at it; one touches it. It is full of five-franc pieces. Murmurs of admiration are heard among the boys. The landlord falls upon the courier’s neck and folds him to his breast. He is so much fatter than he was, he says. He looks so rosy and so well!…

The rooms are on the first floor, except the nursery for the night, which is a great rambling chamber, with four or five beds in it; through a dark passage, up two steps, down four, past a pump, across a balcony, and next door to the stable. The other sleeping apartments are large and lofty; each with two small bedsteads, tastefully hung, like the windows, with red and white drapery. The sitting-room is famous. Dinner is already laid in it for three; and the napkins are folded in cocked-hat fashion. The floors are of red tile. There are no carpets, and not much furniture to speak of; but there is abundance of looking-glass, and there are large vases under glass shades filled with artificial flowers, and there are plenty of clocks. The whole party are in motion. The brave courier in particular, is everywhere, looking after the beds, having wine poured down his throat by his dear brother the landlord, and picking up green cucumbers,—always cucumbers; Heaven knows where he gets them,—with which he walks about, one in each hand, like truncheons.

Dinner is announced. There is very thin soup; there are very large loaves,—one apiece; a fish; four dishes afterwards; some poultry afterwards; a dessert afterwards; and no lack of wine. There is not much in the dishes, but they are very good, and always ready instantly. When it is nearly dark, the brave courier, having eaten the two cucumbers, sliced up in the contents of a pretty large decanter of oil and another of vinegar, emerges from his retreat below, and proposes a visit to the Cathedral, whose massive tower frowns down upon the court-yard of the inn. Off we go; and very solemn and grand it is in the dim light; so dim at last that the polite old lantern-jawed sacristan has a feeble little bit of candle in his hand to grope among the tombs with, and looks, among the grim columns, very like a lost ghost who is searching for his own.

Underneath the balcony, when we return, the inferior servants of the inn are supping in the open air, at a great table; the dish, a stew of meat and vegetables, smoking hot, and served in the iron caldron it was boiled in. They have a pitcher of thin wine, and are very merry; merrier than the gentleman with the red beard, who is playing billiards in the light room on the left of the yard, where shadows with cues in their hands and cigars in their mouths cross and recross the window constantly. Still the thin curé walks up and down alone, with his book and umbrella. And there he walks, and there the billiard-balls rattle, long after we are fast asleep.

We are astir at six the next morning. It is a delightful day, shaming yesterday’s mud upon the carriage, if anything could shame a carriage in a land where carriages are never cleaned. Everybody is brisk, and as we finish breakfast the horses come jingling into the yard from the post-house. Everything taken out of the carriage is put back again. The brave courier announces that all is ready, after walking into every room and looking all round it to be certain that nothing is left behind. Everybody gets in. Everybody connected with the Hôtel de l’Écu d’Or is again enchanted. The brave courier runs into the house for a parcel containing cold fowl, sliced ham, bread, and biscuits for lunch, hands it into the coach, and runs back again.

What has he got in his hand now? More cucumbers? No. A long strip of paper. It’s the bill.

The brave courier has two belts on this morning,—one supporting the purse, another a mighty good sort of leathern bottle, filled to the throat with the best light Bordeaux wine in the house. He never pays the bill till this bottle is full. Then he disputes it.

He disputes it now violently. He is still the landlord’s brother, but by another father or mother. He is not so nearly related to him as he was last night. The landlord scratches his head. The brave courier points to certain figures in the bill, and intimates that if they remain there the Hôtel de l’Écu d’Or is thenceforth and forever an hotel de l’écu de cuivre. The landlord goes into a little counting-house. The brave courier follows, forces the bill and a pen into his hand, and talks more rapidly than ever. The landlord takes the pen. The courier smiles. The landlord makes an alteration. The courier cuts a joke. The landlord is affectionate, but not weakly so. He bears it like a man. He shakes hands with his brave brother, but he doesn’t hug him. Still, he loves his brother, for he knows that he will be returning that way one of these fine days with another family, and he foresees that his heart will yearn towards him again. The brave courier traverses all round the carriage once, looks at the drag, inspects the wheels, jumps up, gives the word, and away we go!

[And so onward they go, passing Châlons, which excites little comment, and at length reaching Lyons.]

What a city Lyons is! Talk about people feeling at certain unlucky times as if they had tumbled from the clouds! Here is a whole town that has tumbled anyhow, out of the sky; having been first caught up, like other stones that tumble down from that region, out of fens and barren places, dismal to behold! The two great streets through which the two great rivers dash, and all the little streets whose name is Legion, were scorching, blistering, and sweltering. The houses, high and vast, dirty to excess, rotten as old cheeses, and as thickly peopled. All up the hills that hem the city in, these houses swarm; and the mites inside were lolling out of the windows and drying their ragged clothes on poles, and crawling in and out at the doors, and coming out to pant and gasp upon the pavement, and creeping in and out among huge piles and bales of fusty, musty, stifling goods, and living, or rather not dying till their time should come, in an exhausted receiver. Every manufacturing town melted into one would hardly convey an impression of Lyons as it presented itself to me, for all the undrained, unscavengered qualities of a foreign town seemed grafted there upon the native miseries of a manufacturing one, and it bears such fruit as I would go some miles out my way to avoid encountering again.

In the cool of the evening, or rather in the faded heat of the day, we went to see the Cathedral, where divers old women, and a few dogs, were engaged in contemplation. There was no difference in point of cleanliness between its stone pavement and that of the streets; and there was a wax saint, in a little box like a berth aboard ship, with a glass front to it, whom Madame Tussaud would have nothing to say to, on any terms, and which even Westminster Abbey might be ashamed of. If you would know all about the architecture of this church, or any other, its dates, dimensions, endowments, and history, is it not written in Mr. Murray’s Guide-Book, and may you not read it there, with thanks to him, as I did?

For this reason, I should abstain from mentioning the curious clock in Lyons Cathedral, if it were not for a small mistake I made in connection with that piece of mechanism. The keeper of the church was very anxious it should be shown; partly for the honor of the establishment and the town, and partly, perhaps, because of his deriving a percentage from the additional consideration. However that may be, it was set in motion, and thereupon a host of little doors flew open, and innumerable little figures staggered out of them, and jerked themselves back again, with that special unsteadiness of purpose, and hitching in the gait, which usually attaches to figures that are moved by clock-work. Meanwhile, the sacristan stood explaining these wonders, and pointed them out, severally, with a wand. There was a centre puppet of the Virgin Mary; and close to her a small pigeon-hole, out of which another and a very ill-looking puppet made one of the most sudden plunges I ever saw accomplished; instantly flopping back again at sight of her, and banging his little door violently after him. Taking this to be emblematic of the victory over Sin and Death, and not at all unwilling to show that I perfectly understood the subject, in anticipation of the showman, I rashly said, “Aha! The Evil Spirit. To be sure. He is very soon disposed of.” “Pardon, monsieur,” said the sacristan, with a polite motion of his hand towards the little door, as if introducing somebody,—“the Angel Gabriel!”

Soon after daybreak next morning we were steaming down the arrowy Rhone, at the rate of twenty miles an hour, in a very dirty vessel full of merchandise, and with only three or four other passengers for our companions; among whom, the most remarkable was a silly, old, meek-faced, garlic-eating, immeasurably polite Chevalier, with a dirty scrap of red ribbon hanging at his button-hole, as if he had tied it there to remind himself of something; as Tom Noddy, in the farce, ties knots in his pocket-handkerchief.

For the last two days we had seen great sullen hills, the first indications of the Alps, lowering in the distance. Now, we were rushing on beside them; sometimes close beside them; sometimes with an intervening slope, covered with vineyards. Villages and small towns hanging in mid-air, with great woods of olives seen through the light open towers of their churches, and clouds moving slowly on, upon the steep acclivity behind them; ruined castles perched on every eminence; and scattered houses in the clefts and gullies of the hills, made it very beautiful. The great height of these, too, making the buildings look so tiny that they had all the charm of elegant models; their excessive whiteness, as contrasted with the brown rocks, or the sombre, deep, dull, heavy green of the olive-tree, and the puny size and little slow walk of the Liliputian men and women on the bank, made a charming picture. There were ferries out of number, too; bridges; the famous Pont d’Esprit, with I don’t know how many arches; towns where memorable wines are made; Vallence, where Napoleon studied; and the noble river, bringing, at every winding turn, new beauties into view.

There lay before us, that same afternoon, the broken bridge of Avignon, and all the city baking in the sun; yet with an underdone-pie-crust, battlemented wall that never will be brown, though it bake for centuries.



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