Charles Dickens.

The mystery of Edwin Drood, Reprinted pieces, and other stories online

. (page 26 of 103)
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their wives, one thinks, in a desert island — and
people it, too, soon.

As to the naval officer of the station, with his
hearty fresh face, and his blue eye that has
pierced all kinds of weather, it warms our hearts
when he comes into church on a Sunday, with
that bright mixture of blue coat, buff waistcoat,
black neckerchief, and gold epaulette, that is
associated in the minds of all Englishmen with



136



OUR FRENCH WATERING-PLACE.



brave, unpretending, cordial national service.
We like to look at him in his Sunday state ; and
if we were First Lord (really possessing the in-
dispensable qualification for the office of know-
ing nothing whatever about the sea), we would
give him a ship to-morrow.

We have a church, by-the-b}'e, of course — a
hideous temple of Hint, like a great petrified
haystack. Our chief clerical dignitary, who, to
his honour, has done much for education both
in time and money, and has established excel-
lent schools, is a sound, shrewd, healthy gentle-
man, who has got into little occasional difficulties
with the neighbouring farmers, but has had a
pestilent trick of being right. Under a new
regulation, he has yielded the church of our
watering-place to another clergyman. Upon
the 'whole, we get on in church well. We are
a little bilious sometimes about these days of
fraternisation, and about nations arriving at a new
and more unprejudiced knowledge of each other
(which our Christianity don't quite approve), but
it soon goes off, and then we get on very well.

There are two Dissenting chapels, besides, in
our small watering-place ; being in about the pro-
portion of a hundred and twenty guns to a yacht.
But the dissension that has torn us lately has not
been a religious one. It has arisen on the novel
question of Gas. Our watering-place has been
convulsed by the agitation. Gas or No Gas. It
was ncA'er reasoned why No Gas, but there
•was a great No Gas party. Broadsides were
printed and stuck about — a startling circum-
stance in our watering-place. The No Gas
party rested content with chalking " No Gas !"
and "Down with Gas!" and other such angry
war-whoops, on the few back-gates and scraps
of wall which the limits of our watering-place
afford; but the Gas party printed and posted
.bills, wherein they took the high ground of pro-
claiming against the No Gas party, that it was
said. Let there be light, and there was light ;
-and that not to have light (that is, gas-light) in
our watering-place, was to contravene the great
decree. Whether by these thunderbolts or not,
the No Gas party were defeated ; and in this
present season we have had our handful of shops
illuminated for the first time. Such of the No
Gas party, however, as have got shops, remain
in opposition and burn tallow — exhibiting in
their windows the very picture of the sulkiness
that punishes itself, and a new illustration of the
old adage about cutting off your nose to be
revenged on your face, in cutting off their gas to
be revenged on their business.

Other population than we have indicated our
watering-place has none. There are a few old



used-up boatmen who creep about the sun-light
with the help of sticks, and there is a pooi
imbecile shoemaker who wanders his lonely life
away among the rocks, as if he were looking for
his reason — which he will never find. Sojourners
in neighbouring watering-places come occa-
sionally in flies to stare at us, and drive away
again as if they thought us very dull; Italian
boys come. Punch comes, the Fantoccini come,
the Tumblers come, the Ethiopians come ; Glee-
singers come at night, and hum and vibrate (not
always melodiously) under our windows. But
they all go soon, and leave us to ourselves again.
We once had a travelling Circus and Womb-
well's Menagerie at the same time. They both
know better than ever to try it again ; and the
Menagerie had nearly razed us from the face of
the earth in getting the elephant away — his
caravan was so large, and the watering-place so
small. We have a fine sea, wholesome for all
people ; profitable for the body, profitable for
the mind. The poet's words are sometimes on
its awful lips :

And the stately ships go on

To their haven under the hill ;
But O for the touch of a vanish'd hand.

And the sound of a voice that is still !

Break, break, break,

At the foot of thy crags, O sea !
But the tender grace of a day that is dead

Will never come back to me.

Yet it is not always so, for the speech of the
sea is various, and wants not abundant resource
of cheerfulness, hope, and lusty encouragement.
And since I have been idling at the window
here, the tide has risen. The boats are dancing
on the l)ubbling water ; the colliers are afloat
again ; the white-bordered waves rush in ; the
children

Do chase the ebbing Neptune, and do fly him
Wher he comes back ;

the radiant sails are gliding past the shore, and
shining on the far horizon ; all the sea is spark-
ling, heaving, swelling \\\^ with life and beauty,
this bright morning.



OUR FRENCH WATERING-PLACE.

HAVING earned, by many years of fidelity,
the right to be sometimes inconstant to
our English watering-place, we have dallied for
two or three seasons with a French watering-
place : once solely known to us as a town with
a very long street, beginning with an abattoir



CROSSING THE CHANNEL.



137



and ending with a steamboat, which it seemed
our fate to behold only at daybreak on win-
ter mornings, when' (in the days before conti-
nental railroads), just sufficiently awake to
know that we were most uncomfortably asleep,
it was our destiny always to clatter through
it, in the coupe of the diligence from Paris,
with a sea of mud behind us, and a sea of
tumbling waves before. In relation to which
latter monster, our mind's eye now recalls a
worthy Frenchman in a seal-skin cap with
a braided hood over it, once our travelling
companion in the coupe aforesaid, who, waking
up with a pale and crumpled visage, and looking
ruefully out at the grim row of breakers enjoying
themselves fanatically on an instrument of tor-
ture called *• the Ear," inquired of us whether we
were ever sick at sea? Both to prepare his
mind for the abject creature we were presently
to become, and also to afford him consolation,
we replied, " Sir, your servant is always sick
when it is possible to be so." He returned,
altogether uncheered by the bright example,
" Ah, Heaven, but I am always sick, even when
it is ////possible to be so."

The means of communication between the
French capital and our French watering-place
are wholly changed since those days ; but the
Channel remains unbridged as yet, and the old
floundering and knocking about go on there. It
must be confessed that saving in reasonable (and
therefore rare) sea-weather, the act of arrival at
our French watering-place from England is diffi-
cult to be achieved with dignity. Several little
circumstances combine to render the visitor an
object of humiliation. In the first place, the
steamer no sooner touches the port than all the
passengers fall into captivity : being boarded by
an overpowering force of Custom-house officers,
and marched into a gloomy dungeon. In the
second place, the road to this dungeon is fenced
oft" with ropes breast-high, and outside those
ropss all the English in the place who have
lately been sea-sick, and are now well, assemble
in their best clothes to enjoy the degradation of
their dilapidated fellow- creatures. "Oh, my
gracious ! how ill this one has been ! " " Here's
a damp one coming next ! " " Her^s a pale
one !" " Oh ! Ain't he green in the face, this
next one ! " Even we ourself (not deficient in
natural dignity) have a lively remembrance of
staggering up this detested lane one September
day m a gale of wind, when we were received like
an irresistible comic actor, with a burst of laugh-
ter and applause, occasioned by the extreme
imbecility of our legs.

We were coming to the third place. In the



third place, the captives, being shut up in the
gloomy dungeon, are strained, two or three at a
time, into an inner cell, to be examined as to
passports ; and across the doorway of communi-
cation stands a military creature making a bar
of his arm. Two ideas are generally present to
the British mind during these ceremonies ; first,
that it is necessary to make for the cell with
violent struggles, as if it were a life-boat, and
the dungeon a ship going down ; secondly, that
the military creature's arm is a national aftront,
which the government at home ought mstantly
to " take up." The British mind and body
becoming heated by these fantasies, delirious
answers are made to inquiries, and extravagant
actions performed. Thus, Johnson persists in
giving Johnson as his baptismal name, and sub-
stituting for his ancestral designation the national
" Dam ! " Neither can he by any means be
brought to recognise the distinction between a
portmanteau-key and a passport, but will obsti-
nately persevere in tendering the one when asked
for the other. This brings him to the fourth
place, in a state of mere idiotcy ; and when he
is, in the fourth place, cast out at a little door
into a howling wilderness of touters, he becomes
a lunatic with wild eyes and floating hair until
rescued and soothed. If friendless and unres-
cued, he is generally put into a railway omnibus
and taken to Paris.

But, our French watermg-place, when it is
once got into, is a very enjoyable place. It has
a varied and beautiful country around it, and
many characteristic and agreeable things within
it. To be sure, it might have fewer bad smells
and less decaying refuse, and it might be better
drained, and much cleaner in many parts, and
therefore infinitely more healthy. Still, it is a
bright, airy, pleasant, cheerful town ; and if you
were to walk down either of its three well-paved
main streets, towards five o'clock in the afternoon,
when delicate odours of cookery fill the air, and
its hotel windows (it is full of hotels) give
glimpses of long tables set out for dinner, and
made to look sumptuous by the aid of napkins
folded fan-wise, you would rightly judge it to be
an uncommonly good town to eat and drink in.

We have an old walled town, rich in cool
public wells of water, on the top of a hill within
and above the present business town ; and if it
were some hundreds of miles further from Eng-
land, instead of being, on a clear day, within
sight of the grass growing in the crevices of the
chalk clifts of Dover, you would long ago have
been bored to death about that town. It is more
picturesque and quaint than half the innocent
places which tourists, following their leader like



138



OUR FRENCH WATERING-PLACE.



sheep, have made impostors of. To say nothing
of its houses with grave courtyards, its queer by-
corners, and its many-windowed streets white
and quiet in the sun-Hglit, there is an ancient
belfry in it that would have been in all the
Annuals and Albums, going and gone, these
hundred years, if it had but been more expen-
sive to get at. Happily it has escaped so well,
being only in our French watering-place, that
you may like it of your own accord in a natural
manner, without being required to go into con-
vulsions about it. We regard it as one of the
later blessings of our life, that Bilkins, the only
authority on Taste, never took any notice, that
we can find out, of our French watering-place.
Ijilkins never wrote about it, never pointed out
anything to be seen in it, never measured any-
thing in it, always left it alone. For which re-
lief, Heaven bless the town, and the memory of
the immortal Bilkins likewise !

There is a charming walk, arched and shaded
by trees, on the old walls that form the four
sides of this High Town, whence you get
glimpses of the streets below, and changing
views of the other town and of the river, and of
the hills and of the sea. It is made more agree-
able and peculiar by some of the solemn houses
that are rooted in the deep streets below, burst-
ing into a fresher existence atop, and having
doors and windows, and even gardens, on these
ramparts. A child going in at the courtyard
gate of one of these houses, climbing up the
many stairs, and coming out at the fourth-floor
window, might conceive himself another Jack,
alighting on enchanted ground from another
bean-stalk. It is a place wonderfully populous
in children ; English children, with governesses
reading novels as they walk down the shady
lanes of trees, or nursemaids interchanging
gossip on the seats ; French children, with their
smiling bonnes in snow-white caps, and them-
selves — if little boys — in straw head-gear like
bee-hives, work-baskets, and church hassocks.
Three years ago, there were three weazen old men,
one bearing a frayed red ribbon in his thread-
bare button-hole, always to be found walking
together among these children, before dinner-
time. If they walked for an appetite, they
doubtless lived en pension — were contracted
fo! — otherwise their poverty would have made
it a rash action. They were stooping, blear-
eyed, dull old men, slipshod and shabby, in
long- skirted short -waisted coats and meagre
trousers, and yet with a ghost of gentility hover-
ing in their company. They spoke little to
each other, and looked as if they might have
been politically discontented if they had had



vitality enough. Once, we overheard red-ribbon
feebly complain to the other two that somebody,
or something, was " a Robber ; " and then they
all three set their mouths so that they would
have ground their teeth if they had had any.
The ensuing winter gathered red-ribbon unto
the great company of faded ribbons, and next
year the remaining two were there — getting
themselves entangled with hoops and dolls —
familiar mysteries to the children — probably, in
the eyes of most of them, harmless creatures
who had never been like children, and whom
children could never be like. Another winter
came, and another old man went, and so, this
present year, the last of the triumvirate left off
walking — it was no good now — and sat by him-
self on a little solitary bench, with the hoops
and the dolls as lively as ever all about him.

In the Place d'Armes of this town a little
decayed market is held, which seems to slip
through the old gateway like water, and go
rippling down the hill, to mingle with the mur-
muring market in the lower town, and get lost
in its movement and bustle. It is very agree-
able, on an idle summer morning, to pursue this
market -stream from the hill-top. It begins
dozingly and dully, with a few sacks of corn ;
starts into a surprising collection of boots and
shoes ; goes brawling down the hill in a diver-
sified channel of old cordage, old iron, old
crockery, old clothes civil and military, old rags,
new cotton goods, flaming prints of saints, little
looking-glasses, and incalculable lengths of tape ;
dives into a backway, keeping out of sight for a
little while, as streams will, or only sparkling
for a moment in the shape of a market drinking-
shop ; and suddenly reappears behind the great
church, shooting itself into a bright confusion
of white-capped women and blue-bloused men,
poultry, vegetables, fruits, flowers, pots, pans,
praying-chairs, soldiers, country butter, umbrellas
and other sun-shades, girl-porters waiting to be
hired with baskets at their backs, and one
weazen little old man in a cocked-hat, wearing
a cuirass of drinking-glasses, and carrying on his
shoulder a crimson temple fluttering with Hags,
like a glorified pavior's rammer without the
handle, who rings a little bell in all ixarts of the
scene, and cries his coohng drink, Hola, Hola,
Ho-o-o ! in a shrill cracked voice that somehow
makes itself heard above all the chaffering and
vending hum. Early in the afternoon, the whole
course of the stream is dry. The praying-chairs
are put back in the church, the umbrellas are
folded up, the unsold goods are carried away,
the stalls and stands disappear, the square is
swept, the hackney coaches lounge there to be



JTS FISHING PEOPLE.



139



hired, and on all the country roads (if you walk
about as much as we do) you will see the peasant
women, always neatly and comfortably dressed,
riding home, witli the pleasantest saddle furni-
ture of clean milk-]\ails, bright butter kegs, and
the like, on the joUiest little donkeys in the
world.

We have another market in our French water-
ing-place — that is to say, a few wooden hutches
in the open street, down by the Port — devoted
to fish. Our fishing-boats are famous every-
where ; and our liihing people, though they love
lively colours and taste is neutral (see Bilkins),
are among the most picturesque people we ever
encountered. They have not only a Quarter of
their own in the town itself, but they occupy
whole villages of their own on the neighbouring
cliffs. Their churches and chapels are their
own ; they consort with one another, they inter-
marry among themselves, their customs are their
own, and their costume is their own, and never
changes. As soon as one of their boys can
walk, he is provided with a long bright red
nightcap; and one of their men would as soon
think of going afloat without his head, as without
that indispensable appendage to it. Then, they
wear the noblest boots, with the hugest tops —
ilapping and bulging over anyhow; above which,
they encase themselves in such wonderful over-
alls and petticoat trousers, made to all appear-
ance of tarry old sails, so additionally stiffened
with pitch and salt that the wearers have a walk
of their own, and go straddling and swinging
about among the boats and barrels and nets
and rigging, a sight to see. Then, their younger
women, by dint of going down to the sea bare-
foot, to fling their baskets into the boats as they
come in Avith the tide, an^.l bespeak the first-
fruits of the haul with propitiatory promises to
love and marry that dear fisherman who shall
fill that basket like an Angel, have the finest
legs ever carved by Nature in the brightest
mahogany, and they walk like Juno. Their eyes.
1 50, are so lustrous that their long gold ear-rings
turn dull beside those brilliant neighbours ; and
when they are dressed, what with these beauties,
and their fine fresh faces, and their many petti-
coats — striped petticoats, red petticoats, blue
petticoats, always clean and smart, and never
too long — and their home-made stockings, mul-
l^erry-coloured, blue, brown, purple, lilac — which
the older women, taking care of the Dutch-
looking children, sit in all sorts of places knitting,
knitting, knitting, from morning to night — and
what with their little saucy bright blue jackets,
knitted too, and fitting close to their handsome
figures; and what with the natural grace with



which they wear the commonest cap, or fold the
commonest handkerchief round their luxuriant
hair — we say, in a wonl and out of breath, that
taking all these premises into our consideration,
it has never been a matter of the least surprise
to us that we have never once met, in the corn-
fields, on the dusty roads, by the breezy Avind-
mills, on the plots of short sweet grass overhang-
ing the sea — anywhere — a young fisherman and
fisherwoman of our French watering-place to-
gether, but the arm of that fisherman has invari-
ably been, as a matter of course and without
any absurd attempt to disguise so plain a neces-
sity, round the neck or waist of that fisher-
woman. And we have had no doubt v/hatever,
standing looking at their uphill streets, house
rising above house, and terrace above terrace,
and bright garments here and there lying sun-
ning on rough stone parapets, that the pleasant
mist on all such objects, caused by their being
seen through the brown nets hung across on
poles to dr}'-, is, in the eyes of every true young
fisherman, a mist of love and beauty, setting off
the goddess of his heart.

^Moreover, it is to be observed that these are
an industrious people, and a domestic people,
and an honest people. And though we are
aware that at the bidding of Bilkins it is our
duty to fall down and worship the Neapolitans,
we make bold very much to prefer the fishing
people of our French watering-place — especially
since our last visit to Naples within these twelve-
months, when we found only four conditions of
men remaining in the whole city : to wit, lazza-
roni, priests, spies, and soldiers, and all of
them beggars ; the paternal government having
banished all its subjects except the rascals.

But we can never henceforth separate our
French watering-place from our own landlord of
two summers, M. Loyal Devasseur, citizen and
town councillor. Permit us to have the pleasure
of presenting M. Loyal Devasseur.

P'is own family name is simply Loyal ; but,
as he is married, and as in that part of France
a husband ahvays adds to his own name the
family name of his v/ife, he writes himself Loyal
Devasseur. He owns a compact little estate of
some twenty or thirty acres on a lofty hill-side,
and on it he has built two country houses which
he lets furnished. They are by many degrees
the best houses that are so let near our PYench
watering-place ; we have had the honour of
living in both, and can testify. The entrance-
hall of the first we inhabited was ornamented
with a plan of the estate, representing it as
about twice the size of Ireland ; insomuch that
when we were yet new to the Property (M.



140



OUR FRENCH WATERING-PLACE.



Loyal always speaks of it as "la propriety")
we went three miles straight on end, in search
of the bridge of Austerlitz — which we afterwards
found to be immediately outside the window.
The Chateau of the Old Guard, in another part
of the grounds, and, according to the plan, about
two leagues from the little dining-room, we souglit
in vain for a week, until, happening one evening
to sit upon a bench in the forest (forest in the
plan), a few yards from the house-door, we
observed at our feet, in the ignominious circum-
stances of being upside down and greenly rotten,
the Old Guard himself : that is to say, the painted
effigy of a member of that distinguished corps,
seven feet high, and in the act of carrying arms,
who had had the misfortune to be blown down
in the previous winter. It will be perceived that
M. Loyal is a staunch admirer of the great
Napoleon. He is an old soldier himself — cap-
tain of the National Guard, with a handsome
gold vase on his chimney-piece, presented to
him by his company — and his respect for the
memory of the illustrious general is enthusiastic.
Medallions orhini, portraits of him, busts of
him, pictures of him, are thickly sprinkled all
over the Property. During the first month of
our occupation, it was our affliction to be con-
stantly knocking down Napoleon : if we touched
a shelf in a dark corner, he toppled over with a
crash ; and every door we opened shook him to
the soul. Yet I\L Loyal is not a man of mere
castles in the air, or, as he would say, in Spain.
He has a specially practical, contriving, clever,
skilful eye and hand. His houses are delightful.
He unites French elegance and English comfort
in a happy manner quite his own. He has an
extraordinary genius for making tasteful little
bedrooms in angles of his roofs, which an Eng-
lishman would as soon think of turning to any
account as he would think of cultivating the
Desert. We have ourself reposed deliciously in
an elegant chamber of j\L Loyal's construction,
with our head as nearly in the kitchen cliimney-
pot as we can conceive it likely for the head of
any gentleman, not by profession a Sweep, to be.
And, into whatsoever strange nook M. Loyal's
genius penetrates, it, in that nook, infallibly
■constructs a cupboard and a row of pegs. In
either of our houses we could have put away
the knapsacks and hung up the hats of the
whole regiment of Guides.

Aforetime, ]\L Loyal was a tradesman in the
town. You can transact business with no pre-
sent tradesman in the town, and give your card
■" chez M. Loyal," but a brighter face shines
upon you directly. We doubt if there is, ever
Avas, or ever will be, a man so universally plea-



sant in the minds of people as M. Loyal is in
the minds of the citizens of our French watering-
place. They rub their hands and laugh when
they speak of him. Ah, but he is such a good
child, such a brave boy, such a generous spirit,
that Monsieur Loyal ! It is the honest truth.
M. Loyal's nature is the nature of a gentleman.
He cultivates his ground with his own hands
(assisted by one little labourer, who falls into a



Online LibraryCharles DickensThe mystery of Edwin Drood, Reprinted pieces, and other stories → online text (page 26 of 103)