Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio
(Return to Web Text-ures)
Click Here to return to
Along French Byways
Along French Byways
AFTER a long day’s railroad journey from Holland I arrived at Calais late one night in the latter part of May, and looked about the big, dim-lit station, question‑ing within myself how I should find a lodging-place. A clock, whose pointers indicated that it was past midnight, was the only intelligible thing in sight; for all the signs and posters were in French, and only French words greeted my ears. As I knew almost nothing of the language, and still less of its proper pronunciation, it could about as well have been Chinese. While I was hesitating, in doubt as to what to do next, a group of clamorous coachmen assailed me, each man intent on rushing me off to his particular hotel. My response in English only served to increase their ardor without contributing a single iota to the information I desired. In the end I would have been compelled to trust my fate to one of them and take the chances of getting accommodations to my liking, had not a railroad porter come up who said he could talk English. From him I learned that a large hotel was run in connection with the station. I knew from experience in England that railroad hotels were generally excellent, and I was rejoiced that there was no need to go farther that night. I extricated myself from amid the disappointed coachmen, who must now return to their various hostelries empty-handed, and followed the guidance of my new friend. He did not leave me till he had seen me to a room in the hotel.
On the following day I met this English-speaking porter again. He was off duty at the time, and when he offered to show me about the town I gladly accepted his companionship. We lingered longest in the older parts. Their gray antiquity was very delightful, and I was especially interested in a tall, weather-worn lighthouse that rises above all the other town buildings on the borders of the market-place. It has outlived its usefulness as a lighthouse, and now serves as a watchtower. Each night, from eleven o’clock on, a lone sentinel looks out on the town from the glass windows at the summit of the old lighthouse. Every quarter of an hour he blows a blast on a horn to let the citizens know that all is well, while the end of each hour is marked by four blasts, one blown toward each quarter of the compass. If the watchman sees a fire or anything else wrong, he sounds the alarm by ringing a bell.
The porter and I became quite comfortably friendly on our walk, and I found him intelligent and entertaining. In his broken English he spoke of his fellow-countrymen with great frankness, and his comments on national characteristics were suggestive and enlightening.
For one thing, he said that the relations of the men and women were marked by mutual distrust, and the men in particular are convinced that all women are deceitful and unstable. The porter agreed with the justice of this general verdict on the character of the French. women, but palliated their faultiness by observing that it might be the result of the men’s “leading on.” Still, he did not think the men would lead on if they were not encouraged to do so by the women themselves. A Frenchman likes sentiment, he explained, but responsibility sits lightly on him, and he forgets the most ardent professions and skips from one love to another as fancy dictates.
If the porter was right in his elucidations, the tender passion as experienced in France, is a sort of frenzy in which the judicial faculties play small part. “When a person is in love,” said he, “you do not think — people are not made of wood — you do what the one you love asks. I do what the girl asks; she does what I ask. I have the proof in my own life. There was a girl I loved, but my folks did not approve her. One afternoon I call and she was sick. I sat in her bedroom and we talk, and she say she is discourage. She tell me she is discourage three — four times, and I say in a joke, ‘Well, why don’t you go kill yourself?’
“Then I look away out the window for a little, and I hear a gurgle. I look back quick to the bed, and the girl have a string around her neck and pulling, and black in the countenance. I jump and take the string away, and say, ‘What for you make a fool of yourself when I remark a pleasant saying for the fun?’
“She reply, ‘You say to do so!’
“But it was her impulse for the day only. If she had kill, to-morrow she would be sorry for it. That is the way of us. We do desperate attempts by impulse only, and when excited. For the moment we have great heat and much daring. After that we are all gone — no courage, no nothing. You Americans — you different. You no have to get drunk to be revenge. You can wait — you shoot a man in cold blood. Ah, I like that way much the better!”
I was not inclined to accept unreservedly either the porter’s rather dubious praise of Americans or his strictures on his own people. It is doubtless true that the French lack the staying qualities of the English race and act more on impulse, yet I saw a good deal of French life in my varied touring that seemed to me as simple and domestic and as honestly affectionate as could be found anywhere.
The people are unfailingly polite — the peasantry no less than the upper classes. Even the accent, yes, and the look of their printed words have an air of suavity that attracts and pleases. In the country districts the people bow when they meet you, and say, “Bon jour, Monsieur.” It is a greeting that is given as a matter of course, and you receive it just as surely from the little children and the women as you do from the men, who add a touch of the hat. It makes a very agreeable impression on the sojourner from abroad to be accorded such courtesy and friendliness. Among themselves the exchange of pleasant salutations at meeting and parting is universal. This is true of all classes, from the laborers up; and, besides, every man is given his prefix. That they should “monsieur” the curé and doctor and the stranger is to be expected, but they also, with the same respectfulness, address the butcher, the baker, and the ditch-digger.
It was delightful, yet whether this politeness was more than surface deep may be a question. I sometimes had my doubts of it when I noted how little hesitation the people showed in loading me with their bad money. Belgian, Swiss, Turkish, and other coins are in common circulation in France. They are much like French money in size and appearance, and some of them are good and some are not. Often, when I was buying a railroad ticket, I would see the agent poke over his drawer in what I believed was a search for bad money — depreciated foreign coins which native travellers were, of course, wise enough to refuse — and the more he could inveigle into my change, the better he was pleased. I always felt helpless and at his mercy, for I was usually in a hurry, and I was never quite sure enough about the coins to make my protest prompt and effective. I gradually gathered a pocketful of this poor currency, and knew not what to do with it till I returned to London, where I sold it for what it would bring at a money exchange.
I usually travelled on the railroads third class. This was partly for economy, partly because my fellow-passengers in that class were sure to disclose their impulses with much greater freedom than the wealthier folks who journeyed in the more aristocratic apartments. In England the third-class carriages are, as a rule, fairly comfortable, but on the Continent they are so rude that it is something of a hardship to ride in them. They are not much better than one of our freight cars would be with some cushionless benches run across the interior. The occupants indulge freely in smoking, spitting, and loud talking, and the only alleviation within reach is to sit near the front of the coach and keep a window open.
French nature as seen travelling third class is characterized by a very grasshoppery liveliness. The people are extremely sociable; they chat together vociferously, and their talk is nearly always full of joking and laughter. Sometimes their animation runs into boisterousness, and they sing, shout, and gesture. It has been said, “Give a Frenchman a pair of dumbbells and ask him about the weather, and before his answer is finished he will have taken enough healthful exercise to last him all day.” This statement may have in it a grain of exaggeration, but it is not very far from fact after all.
When three or four persons come to a station to see friends off, there is almost a riot of affectionate parting. It is not confined to lively repartee, for every one has to be kissed, and French custom allows two kisses to a person, one on each cheek. Kissing and embracing are indulged in on all sorts of occasions with much more publicity than I have ever seen elsewhere. Indeed, I thought privacy of any sort seemed to be foreign to the genius of the people.
The loquacity of my railway companions was by no means confined to mere sociability and the exchange of pleasantries. There were serious discussions, as well, and men who did not look at all wise would distil wisdom by the hour with a voluble violence that made my head spin. Let two disputants sit opposite each other, and as their excitement increased they would get their noses together, slap hands, and wave their arms about until they seemed on the point of settling the question at issue with fists and muscle. I confess I was sometimes scared, and was concerned lest they should pitch each other out the windows.
I never saw any one convince his antagonist. The sarcastic shakes of the head and the long-drawn, scornful “Ah-h-h’s!” punctuated the wordy duel, and in the end both seemed grimly contemptuous of the other’s pig-headedness. Politics was, I believe, most frequently the subject of these contentions. Questions of government policy are discussed in France with peculiar bitterness, and as a result families are often divided, and one-time friends become enemies. Every man takes sides and is a stanch partisan, seeing no sense in any view other than his own; and when an affair has been voted on and for the time being, at least, settled, he still continues as pugnacious on that topic as if it was to be voted on again the day following.
In my railway journeys I found every one I met friendly, and I never made a request or asked a question that did not call forth the most earnest effort to understand me and put me right. Once in a while some one would try to carry on a general conversation with me, but as our chief dependence had to be sign language, the results were rather discouraging. There was one occasion when a young Frenchman spent half a day in the attempt to tell me about himself and learn who and what I was. I suppose time hung heavy on his hands, for we were on a narrow-gauge railroad, and our train was so leisurely we might about as well have gone on foot. Our talk apparently had the most absorbing interest for my companion, and this interest was shared by the other occupants of the car, who gathered around us and looked on with fascinated attention.
My new acquaintance had in some way picked up a few words of English, and I had at command about as many words of French; but as he gave his English words a French pronunciation, and I gave my French words an English pronunciation, this knowledge was well-nigh useless. It took us so long in our conversation to make connections that my friend finally got out a pencil and a piece of paper, and we tried writing. Our progress by this method was a trifle smoother. Still, it was nothing to boast of, and I wondered at the pleasure my companion seemed to find in our halting interchange of thought. He would write and then, to see if I understood, would look up at me as raptly as if I had been his sweetheart. Toward the end of our journey he wanted to know if I would correspond with him. Judging from the experience we had already had, I thought it would prove too vast a task, and I tried to tell him, “No,” but could not manage the language to refuse gently, and was forced to acquiesce and give him my address.
I was often in trouble through my lack of French in the earlier days of my touring. One odd complication occurred at Rouen. There were two stations in the town, only of this I was unaware, and my baggage was at one, but it was from the other I must take my departure. At the station where I arrived I had fallen into the hands of a blue-smocked porter, who explained the situation, and what I was to do, over and over again; but I failed to catch the idea of the two stations. The porter trotted me around and held excited conversations with various railroad employees, and they all jabbered advice at me. I concluded the gist of their remarks was that I must wait a couple of hours, and tried to indicate that meanwhile I would take a walk about town. I paid Bluesmock, but he was not satisfied, and insisted on sticking to me. He talked and motioned, and I could see he had some scheme or other in mind for my benefit, but I did not gather the least notion of what it was.
A TYPICAL SCENE IN FRONT OF A CAFÉ
We left the station, and I went in his company along the street until we came to a park where I insisted on turning aside. I sat down on one of the benches. It was a pleasant spot. There were trees and flower-beds, plots of grass, and a rocky little lake with two stately swans adrift on its quiet surface. Several children were playing at the water-side with floating swan-feathers. Other children were running about the paths, and many grown-up folk were sitting on the chairs and benches. I would have been very comfortable there in the shade of the horse-chestnut trees if the porter had let me alone. But he stood before me motioning and exclaiming, and the children gathered around, all agape, looking on. This notoriety was too much for me, and I succumbed, and followed after Bluesmock.
We had just returned to the busy city sidewalk, and my self-constituted guardian was pushing on eagerly ahead, when I noticed a sign in the window of a hotel — ” English Spoken.” I stopped and looked after Bluesmock hastening along in full faith that I was at his heels; but I did not know what to do with him, and I simply let him travel on. I would like to know what he thought became of me, and I have no doubt the story from his point of view would be interesting. At the hotel I got the lacking information about the across-town station and my peace of mind was restored, save for some slight compunctions of conscience with regard to my abandonment of Bluesmock.
The views that I had from the car window in my journeyings in the northwest were very attractive. Along the coast there were sand dunes looming constantly against the western sky, yet with gaps now and then affording a glimpse of the hazy sea, with perhaps a fleet of fishing-boats drifting in toward a town. Sometimes the railroad passed through a region of peat bogs, where frequent groups of men were at work digging out the black bricks of earth and laying them in the sunshine to dry. But these phases were incidental. In the main I saw a land highly cultivated and marked by a quiet pastoral beauty, akin to that of southern England, and yet different. Apparently the ways of the people have imparted to the country an individuality not due to either climate or soil. For one thing, the English and the French differ in their taste as to trees. The former like the sturdy oaks and elms; the latter prefer the slender poplars, and the prevalence of these trees gives the French landscape a delicacy and a lightness that are very charming.
I noticed that every grade crossing on the railways was guarded by gates, and that when our train swept past there was always a woman standing just inside the gates, with a brass horn in one hand, while in the other she held rigidly erect a stick about which a red flag was wound. This woman is the crossing guard. She and her family live close by in a small cottage, that proclaims itself railroad property by having a mammoth number painted on it. Just before the passing of each train the woman closes the gates, blows a warning on her horn for the benefit of any travellers who may be approaching on the highway, and then gets herself into that petrified attitude of military attention that one observes from the car window as the train flies by her.
At first the French method of guarding crossings seemed perfunctory and ludicrous, but it makes them safe. In our own land our country roads, as a rule, cross the tracks at grade perfectly unobstructed, and when the view is limited by buildings, or trees, or hills, you cannot drive over a railroad without feeling that there are frightful possibilities in so doing.
There was, however, one French railroad regulation that I could not regard otherwise than as a curiosity — the custom they have of starting all trains five minutes later than the scheduled time. It is supposed that this makes the public more certain of catching trains; but as all travellers perfectly understand the ruse, they naturally give themselves the benefit of the five minutes, and the gain is nullified.
Of the towns I visited in my early journeying, the most interesting was Falaise in Normandy, in whose ancient castle the cruel King John of England at one time held prisoner his little nephew, Prince Arthur. It was thence the youthful prince was taken to meet his mysterious death — no one knows where or how.
I reached Falaise in the late evening. Several omnibuses were waiting at the station entrance, and I picked out a driver who gave me to understand that at his hotel the folk talked English. With this assurance, I gladly stepped inside his vehicle, and he drove away over the stony streets, far back into the town. I suppose I misunderstood my driver as to the linguistic abilities of the hotel people. He probably only meant to intimate in a general way that at his hotel everything was perfect, for when we arrived not a word could I get out of any of them but French. However, I parlevou’d lamely to a well-meaning, middle-aged maid till she caught the idea that I wanted a room; whereupon she conducted me to an apartment with alacrity, and my trials for that day were over.
MARKET DAY AT FALAISE
The first thing in the morning, when I came downstairs, I met, in the hallway, the maid with whom I had talked the evening before, and she, very agreeably, motioned me to the kitchen. I expected to get something to eat; but instead, the woman produced some blacking brushes, set a low chair out in the middle of the floor, and motioned at my shoes. She wanted to remove the dust and give them a polishing, and I put a foot on the chair and let her work. I had the feeling I ought to be doing the job myself, but the language presented too great difficulties, and I was helpless in her hands.
I spent most of the day in walking about the village. It was the strangest old place I had ever seen. The crooked lanes and highways ran uphill and downhill at random, and street-walks, dwellings, and public buildings were all of a gray stone, much worn and stained, and indicating great age. Indeed the aspect of the village was so venerable I felt as if it had just been exhumed from the mediæval past; and the people in their quaint costumes and with their antiquated modes of living only served to make this impression more emphatic.
A good deal of sewing, knitting, and weaving was going on in the homes, and when I looked in at open doors, I often saw heaps of cloth and newly made garments. There were women spinning on the old‑time wheels, and men knitting with machines that they ran by hand. The town had known prosperity, but now it was decayed and poverty-stricken; and no wonder, for how was it possible by these out-of-date hand methods to compete with modern machinery?
Falaise, like most French towns, is very dirty. This seemed in part due to the uncleanly habits of the people themselves, in part to the entire lack of any sewer system worthy the name. Sluggish rivulets coursed along the street gutters, and these, clogged with kitchen refuse and street garbage, were equally offensive to the sense of smell and sight.
It was market day, and all the roads from the outer world were enlivened with teams driving in from the country, and by women on foot carrying big baskets on their arms, full of butter and eggs. The market square was crowded with booths and strewn with heaps of vegetables and other merchandise; and the throng of buyers and sellers bargaining there, with a gray old church looking down on them, made a scene full of movement and picturesqueness. The townsmen of the lower classes and nearly all the men from the farms wore loose blue smocks, and the women of the same rank wore white caps that were sometimes of plain cloth and very like nightcaps, and at other times were of lace and elaborately frilled. Boys frequently wore blue frocks the same as the men, and about half the youngsters wandered around without hats. These costumes were not peculiar to Falaise, but are to be found, with some local variations, everywhere in France.
Through the centre of the town ran a small millstream, and here and there along it, among the homes of the poorer people, were washing-places and women at work scrubbing dirty clothing. Each washing-place had a broad, heavy slab of stone on the borders of the stream, shelving down into the water. On this stone the workers kneeled in wooden trays that had high fronts and sides to protect them from splashings. The soiled garments were laid on the stone, rubbed with soap and a brush, and then pounded with wide-bladed wooden paddles. After a final rinsing and wringing out, the clothes were hung up to dry on lines and fences, or, in some cases, on trees and hedgerows.
By following the stream to the borders of the town I came to the ruin of the old castle. It crowns a precipice, and overlooks on one side the clustering town-buildings and on the other a juicy meadow, inclosed by wooded hillsides. King John’s murder of the little prince, the story of which is interwoven with that of the castle, was one of the most sombre of old-time tragedies, and I had the fancy it might have cast some sort of blight on the vicinity that would still be perceptible; but it has left no trace behind. Life flows on unruffled in the town, and nature round about is as sweet and peaceful as if the scenes it has witnessed had been gentle and good always.
Rural France as seen in the neighborhood of Falaise and, indeed, everywhere in the northwest, is unfailingly attractive. The slender trees, the mellow atmosphere, the simple ways and primitive dress of its people, all combine to render a country walk a succession of pictures; while to make the acquaintance of a country village for the first time is to have an experience full of delight and pleasure. My own first village was one in the neighborhood of Calais. I was following a roadway across several miles of open plain when I saw, far away to the left, a grove of tall trees, and low amid the foliage I noted twinklings of white walls, indicating that the trees concealed houses. This piqued my curiosity, and I went to investigate. Presently I entered the cool shadows of the grove, and there I found reposed the most charmingly picturesque hamlet imaginable. I would have thought it the only one of its kind in the world, but I learned later that, in its wooded seclusion, with the wide, treeless fields surrounding, it was a typical French village of that section.
Several narrow lanes checkered the wood with their irregular lines, and linked house with house. The only place where the houses gathered in a close group was in the centre of the grove, where stood a little church, so hidden by trees that you would never suspect its existence from a dozen rods’ distance.
Both the barns and the houses, as a rule, had wattled walls of straw and mud, with roofs of tile or thatch. Except for a tarred strip a couple of feet wide around the base, the mud walls were whitewashed. They appear very neat when in good repair, but they are so thin that rents are easily made in them, and where the breaks are not repaired promptly the mud keeps dropping away from the straw, the straw decays, and a neglected building soon falls entirely to pieces.
The houses were set at haphazard along the crooked village lanes, usually snug to the wheel-tracks. If a yard intervened, it was pretty sure to be of hum-mocked and hard-trodden earth, with straw and other litter lying about. The space before the house door looked more like a barnyard than anything else. Often it contained a filthy pool where the green scum gathered. The hens made the yard their scratching place; and the pigs took it for their wallowing ground. Hog-pens and chicken-roosts and stable were right by the door, or even under the same roof as the living-rooms.
The smells were anything but sweet; yet there was so much that was delightful to the eye in the surroundings of these human sties, that one was ready to forget the odors and the filth. The village ways were lined by high hedges, and everywhere were rows of tall trees, many of them without a branch until you came to a little tuft at the tip-top. It is the custom in France to let the shoots grow out thickly along the tree-trunks, and as often as they get to be eight or ten feet long, they are clipped off and used for firewood. To do the clipping, a man straps some spikes to his legs to aid him in climbing, and struggles up to the topmost boughs, where he begins sawing off the limbs and working his way downward. The larger sprouts are marketable as bean-poles. All the lesser stuff is tied up in bundles, that sell for about a cent apiece.
In Holland tree-shoots are utilized just as in France, only there the trees are cut short off about a dozen feet from the ground, and the sprouts grow out at the top in a great bushy head. In England, too, material of the same grade is an article of commerce, but the English have still another method of producing it. They let a field grow to brush, and when the brush reaches the required height, it is cut, made into bundles, the same as are the tree-clippings in France, and in like manner sold for kindling-wood. In America, we count all such material rubbish, and burn it as worthless. The effect of the French treatment of their trees is to make each individual tree, in the near view, remind one of a worn-out broom set wrong end up; but in the aggregate, it gives the landscape a peculiar grace and interest.
Round about the little house of worship that nestled among the shadows in the heart of the grove of my first village was a small churchyard, overgrown with rank weeds and grasses. A few of the graves had headstones, and one a slender cross of iron some nine feet high, much rusted, and bearing a figure of. Christ minus a head. But most of the mounds were unmarked, or were distinguished by nothing more than slight wooden crosses. The graves were very generally decorated with beadwork wreaths, either laid on the ground or hung on the crosses and headstones. These wreaths were often two feet in diameter — great, strange, artificial rosettes, distressingly elaborate, glittering, and high-colored, and in the centre of the finer ones was an oval space, under glass, in which was a Christ on the cross, or perhaps a bead willow tree drooping over a tomb. A large share of the wreaths had been so long exposed to the weather that they were getting shabby, and the earth beneath them was strewn with their fragments. Funeral decorations in our own country are frequently curious and lacking in taste, but I never have seen anything with us quite so grotesque as these bead wreaths of France.
A RURAL BARBER
The village was so quiet, and quaint, and sheltered that it seemed as though it had fallen into a drowsy sleep that had, perhaps, lasted hundreds of years, in which time the march of civilization with all its changes had left this little spot untouched. The people did not seem very busy — at least, they had plenty of time to visit with each other and to watch me. But I was most impressed with their leisureliness by a hair-cutting scene I witnessed. It employed the energies of a whole family, either as actors or onlookers. There was a small boy who was being shorn, his father who did the clipping, his mother who held him, and his sister, uncle, and grandfather who watched proceedings. It seemed a large force for the work in hand, but I think they all enjoyed it, with the possible exception of the boy.
House doors were open, and I glanced into several of the cottage kitchens. There was little to see — a few scanty furnishings, a great fireplace, and sometimes a colony of chickens picking familiarly about the apartment. Frequently there was no other floor than one of rough, hard-trodden earth, very well suited to the chickens, I thought, but not to the human inhabitants, if they had any aspirations toward cleanliness. The only ambitions of this sort that I discovered were concentrated on the outer walls of the cottages, which were often models of neatness — as white above as whitewash could make them, and as black along the base as applications of tar would permit. It was springtime, and apparently the height of the house-furbishing season, for in my wanderings about the village I saw women patching rents in the walls with mud; women whitewashing; and one woman, who had finished her work with the brush, was wiping off the spatters that had fallen on the tarred strip below.
When I left the village, I went out of the grove at the opposite side from the one by which I entered, and a short walk brought me to a broad highway. Where the lane from the village joined this highway stood a house built of stone, that looked as if it might be an inn. A good many people were gathered in the vicinity, and as I drew near I saw that a funeral was in progress. The wide front doorway was framed about with white cloth trimmed with green vines and leaves. This gave entrance, not to the room within, but to a little section of it that had been walled off into a white, grotto-like space in which the coffin rested, adorned with many of the queer artificial wreaths of glass beadwork.
In front of the house, in the roadway, stood a group of black-gowned, white-capped women, and beyond them, in a group distinctly separate, were a number of men. Presently a priest with a crucifix and a sexton with a long staff appeared, both in robes and bareheaded, and a short service in the open air was begun at the white doorway.
Just then a heavy cart came lumbering along the highway, but it stopped at a respectful distance, and the driver took off his hat and waited with bowed head till the procession formed to go to the grave. The priest, chanting as he walked, led, with the sexton close behind. Then came the coffin, with four women bearers; then several women carrying bead wreaths. The other women followed, and the men brought up the rear.
The heavy cart now resumed its rumble along the highway, but I stayed to watch the procession wend through the green lane and enter the cool depths of the village grove. It was lost to sight at length, the chant of the priest died away, and I heard only a skylark singing in the sunset light far up toward the clouds.