James Fenimore Cooper.

Recollections of Europe online

. (page 6 of 29)
Online LibraryJames Fenimore CooperRecollections of Europe → online text (page 6 of 29)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


room, where their persons were examined by functionaries of their own
sex for contraband goods! This process has been described to me as being
to the last degree offensive and humiliating. My own person was
respected, I know not, why, for we were herded like sheep. As we were
without spot, at least so far as smuggling was concerned, we were soon
liberated. All our effects were left in the office, and we were turned
into the streets without even a rag but what we had on. This was an
inauspicious commencement for a country so polished; and yet, when one
comes to look at the causes, it is not easy to point out an alternative.
It was our own fault that we came so late.

The streets were empty, and the tall grey houses, narrow avenues, and
the unaccustomed objects, presented a strange spectacle by the placid
light of the moon. It appeared as if we had alighted in a different
planet. Though fatigued and sleepy, the whole party would involuntarily
stop to admire some novelty, and our march was straggling and irregular.
One house refused us after another, and it soon became seriously a
question whether the night was not to be passed in the open air. P - -
was less than three years old, and as we had a regular gradation from
that age upward, our _début_ in France promised to be anything but
agreeable. The guide said his resources were exhausted, and hinted at
the impossibility of getting in. Nothing but the inns was open, and at
all these we were refused. At length I remembered that, in poring over
an English guide-book, purchased in New York, a certain Hôtel
d'Angleterre had been recommended as the best house in Havre.
"Savez-vous, mon ami, où est l'Hôtel d'Angleterre?" - "Ma fois, oui;
c'est tout près." This "ma fois, oui," was ominous, and the "c'est tout,
près," was more so still. Thither we went, however, and we were
received. Then commenced the process of climbing. We ascended several
stories, by a narrow crooked staircase, and were shown into rooms on the
fifth floor.

The floors were of waxed tiles, without carpets or mats, and the
furniture was tawdry. We got into our beds, which fatigue could scarcely
render it possible to endure, on account of the bugs. A more infernal
night I never passed, and I have often thought since, how hazardous it
is to trust to first impressions. This night, and one or two more passed
at Havre, and one other passed between Rouen and Paris, were among the
most uncomfortable I can remember; and yet if I were to name a country
in which one would be the most certain to get a good and a clean bed, I
think I should name France!

The next morning I arose and went down the ladder, for it was little
better, to the lower world. The servant wished to know if we intended to
use the _table d'hôte_, which he pronounced excellent. Curiosity induced
me to look at the appliances. It was a dark, dirty and crowded room, and
yet not without certain savoury smells. French cookery can even get the
better of French dirt. It was the only place about the house, the kitchen
excepted, where a tolerable smell was to be found, and I mounted to the
upper regions in self-defence.

An hour or two afterwards, the consul did me the favour to call. I
apologized for the necessity of causing him to clamber up so high. "It
is not a misfortune here," was the answer, "for the higher one is, the
purer is the atmosphere;" and he was right enough. It was not necessary
to explain that we were in an inferior house, and certainly everything
was extremely novel. At breakfast, however, there was a sensible
improvement. The linen was white as snow; we were served with silver
forks - it was a breakfast _à la fourchette_ - spotlessly clean napkins,
excellent rolls, and delicious butter, to say nothing of _côtelettes_
that appeared to have been cooked by magic. Your aunt and myself looked
at each other with ludicrous satisfaction when we came to taste coffee,
which happened to be precisely at the same instant. It was the first
time either of us had ever tasted French coffee - it would scarcely be
exaggeration to say, that either of us had ever tasted coffee at all. I
have had many French cooks since; have lived years in the capital of
France itself, but I could never yet obtain a servant who understood the
secret of making _café au lait_, as it is made in most of the inns and
_cafés_ of that country. The discrepancy between the excellence of the
table and the abominations of the place struck them all, so forcibly,
that the rest of the party did little else but talk about it. As for
myself, I wished to do nothing but eat.

I had now another specimen of national manners. It was necessary to get
our luggage through the custom-house. The consul recommended a
_commissionnaire_ to help me. "You are not to be surprised," he said,
laughing, as he went away, "if I send you one in petticoats." In a few
minutes, sure enough, one of the _beau sexe_ presented herself. Her name
was Désirée, and an abler negotiator was never employed. She scolded,
coaxed, advised, wrangled, and uniformly triumphed. The officers were
more civil, by daylight, than we had found them under the influence of
the moon, and our business was soon effected.

W - - had brought with him a spy-glass. It was old and of little value,
but it was an heir-loom of the family. It came from the Hall at C - - n,
and had become historical for its service in detecting deer, in the
lake, during the early years of the settlement. This glass had
disappeared. No inquiry could recover it. "Send for Désirée," said the
consul. Désirée came, received her orders, and in half an hour the glass
was restored. There was an oversight in not getting a passport, when we
were about to quit Havre. The office hours were over, and the steam-boat
could not wait. "Were is Désirée?" Désirée was made acquainted with the
difficulty, and the passport was obtained. "Désirée, où est Désirée?"
cried some one in the crowd, that had assembled to see the Camilla start
for England, the day after our arrival. "Here is an Englishman who is
too late to get his passport _viséd_," said this person to Désirée, so
near me that I heard it all; "the boat goes in ten minutes - what is to
be done?" - "_Ma foi_ - it is too late!" "Try, _ma bonne_ - it's a pity he
should lose his passage - _voici_." The Englishman gave his fee. Désirée
looked about her, and then taking the idler by the arm, she hurried him
through the crowd, this way and that way, ending by putting him aboard
without any passport at all. "It is too late to get one," she said; "and
they can but send you back." He passed undetected. France has a plenty
of these managing females, though Désirée is one of the cleverest of
them all. I understood this woman had passed a year or two in England,
expressly to fit herself for her present occupation, by learning the
language.

While engaged in taking our passages on board the steam-boat for Rouen,
some one called me by name, in English. The sound of the most familiar
words, in one's own language, soon get to be startling in a foreign
country. I remember, on returning to England, after an absence of five
years, that it was more than a week before I could persuade myself I was
not addressed whenever a passer-by spoke suddenly. On the present
occasion, I was called to by an old schoolboy acquaintance, Mr. H - - r,
who was a consul in England, but who had taken a house on what is called
the _Côte_, a hill-side, just above Ingouville, a village at no great
distance from the town. We went out to his pretty little cottage, which
enjoyed a charming view. Indeed I should particularize this spot as the
one which gave me the first idea of one species of distinctive European
scenery. The houses cling to the declivity, rising above each other in a
way that might literally enable one to toss a stone into his neighbour's
chimney-top. They are of stone, but being whitewashed, and very
numerous, they give the whole mountain-side the appearance of a pretty
hamlet, scattered without order in the midst of gardens. Italy abounds
with such little scenes; nor are they unfrequent in France, especially
in the vicinity of towns; though whitened edifices are far from being
the prevailing taste of that country.

That evening we had an infernal clamour of drums in the principal street,
which happened to be our own. There might have been fifty, unaccompanied
by any wind instrument. The French do not use the fife, and when one is
treated to the drum, it is generally in large potions, and nothing but
drum. This is a relic of barbarism, and is quite unworthy of a musical
age. There is more or less of it in all the garrisoned towns of Europe.
You may imagine the satisfaction with which one listens to a hundred or
two of these plaintive instruments, beat between houses six or eight
stories high, in a narrow street, and with desperate perseverance! The
object is to recall the troops to their quarters.

Havre is a tide-harbour. In America, where there is, on an average, not
more than five feet of rise and fall to the water of the sea, such a
haven would, of course, be impracticable for large vessels. But the
majority of the ports on the British Channel are of this character, and
indeed a large portion of the harbours of Great Britain. Calais,
Boulogne, Havre, and Dieppe, are all inaccessible at low water. The
cliffs are broken by a large ravine, a creek makes up the gorge, or a
small stream flows outward into the sea, a basin is excavated, the
entrance is rendered safe by moles which project into deep water, and
the town is crowded around this semi-artificial port as well as
circumstances will allow. Such is, more or less, the history of them
all. Havre, however, is in some measure an exception. It stands on a
plain, that I should think had once been a marsh. The cliffs are near
it, seaward, and towards the interior there are fine receding hills,
leaving a sufficient site, notwithstanding, for a town of large
dimensions.

The port of Havre has been much improved of late years. Large basins have
been excavated, and formed into regular wet docks. They are nearly in the
centre of the town. The mole stretches out several hundred yards on that
side of the entrance of the port which is next the sea. Here signals are
regularly made to acquaint vessels in the offing with the precise number
of feet that can be brought into the port. These signals are changed at
the rise or fall of every foot, according to a graduated scale which is
near the signal pole. At dead low water the entrance to the harbour, and
the outer harbour itself, are merely beds of soft mud. Machines are kept
constantly at work to deepen them.

The ship from sea makes the lights, and judges of the state of the tide
by the signals. She rounds the Mole-Head at the distance of fifty or
sixty yards, and sails along a passage too narrow to admit another
vessel, at the same moment, into the harbour. Here she finds from
eighteen to twenty, or even twenty-four feet of water, according to
circumstances. She is hauled up to the gates of a dock, which are opened
at high water only. As the water falls, one gate is shut, and the
entrance to the dock becomes a lock: vessels can enter, therefore, as
long as there remains sufficient water in the outer harbour for a ship
to float. If caught outside, however, she must lie in the mud until the
ensuing tide.

Havre is the sea-port of Paris, and is rapidly increasing in importance.
There is a project for connecting the latter with the sea by a ship
channel. Such a project is hardly suited to the French impulses, which
imagine a thousand grand projects, but hardly ever convert any of them
to much practical good. The opinions of the people are formed on habits
of great saving, and it requires older calculations, greater familiarity
with risks, and more liberal notions of industry, and, possibly, more
capital than is commonly found in their enterprises, to induce the
people to encounter the extra charges of these improvements, when they
can have recourse to what, in their eyes, are simpler and safer means of
making money. The government employs men of science, who conceive well;
but their conceptions are but indifferently sustained by the average
practical intellect of the country. In this particular France is the
very converse of America.

The project of making a sea-port of Paris, is founded on a principle
that is radically wrong. It is easier to build a house on the sea-side,
than to carry the sea into the interior. But the political economy of
France, like that of nearly all the continental nations, is based on a
false principle, that of forcing improvements. The intellects of the
mass should first be acted on, and when the public mind is sufficiently
improved to benefit by innovations, the public sentiment might be
trusted to decide the questions of locality and usefulness. The French
system looks to a concentration of everything in Paris. The political
organization of the country favours such a scheme, and in a project of
this sort, the interests of all the northern and western departments
would be sacrificed to the interests of Paris. As for the departments
east and south of Paris, they would in no degree be benefited by making
a port of Paris, as goods would still have to be transshipped to reach
them. A system of canals and railroads is much wanted in France, and
most of all, a system of general instruction, to prepare the minds of
the operatives to profit by such advantages. When I say that we are
behind our facts in America, I do not mean in a physical, but in a moral
sense. All that is visible and tangible is led by opinion; in all that
is purely moral, the facts precede the notions of the people.

I found, at a later day, many droll theories broached in France, more
especially in the Chamber of Deputies, on the subject of our own great
success in the useful enterprises. As is usual, in such cases, any
reason but the true one was given. At the period of our arrival in
Europe, the plan of connecting the great lakes with the Atlantic had
just been completed, and the vast results were beginning to attract
attention in Europe. At first, it was thought, as a matter of course,
that engineers from the old world had been employed. This was disproved,
and it was shown that they who laid out the work, however skilful they
may have since become by practice, were at first little more than common
American surveyors. Then the trifling cost was a stumbling-block, for
labour was known to be far better paid in America than in Europe; and
lastly, the results created astonishment. Several deputies affirmed that
the cause of the great success was owing to the fact, that in America we
trusted such things to private competition, whereas, in France, the
government meddled with everything. But it was the state governments,
(which indeed alone possess the necessary means and authority,) that had
caused most of the American canals to be constructed. These political
economists knew too little of other systems to apply a clever saying of
their own - _Il y a de la Rochefoucald, et de la Rouchefoucald_. All
governments do not wither what they touch.

Some Americans have introduced steam-boats on the rivers of France, and
on the lakes of Switzerland and Italy. We embarked in one, after passing
two delectable nights at the Hôtel d'Angleterre. The boat was a
frail-looking thing, and so loaded with passengers, that it appeared
actually to stagger under its freight. The Seine has a wide mouth, and a
long ground-swell was setting in from the Channel. Our Parisian
cockneys, of whom there were several on board, stood aghast. "Nous voici
en pleine mer!" one muttered to the other, and the annals of that
eventful voyage are still related, I make no question, to admiring
auditors in the interior of France. The French make excellent seamen
when properly trained; but I think, on the whole, they are more
thoroughly landsmen than any people of my acquaintance, who possess a
coast. There has been too much sympathy with the army to permit the
mariners to receive a proper share of the public favour.

The boat shaped her course diagonally across the broad current, directly
for Honfleur. Here we first began to get an idea of the true points of
difference between our own scenery and that of the continent of Europe,
and chiefly of that of France. The general characteristics of England
are not essentially different from those of America, after allowing for
a much higher finish in the former, substituting hedges for fences, and
stripping the earth of its forests. These, you may think, are, in
themselves, grand points of difference, but they fall far short of those
which render the continent of Europe altogether of a different nature.
Of forest, there is vastly more in France than in England. But, with few
exceptions, the fields are not separated by enclosures. The houses are
of stone, or of wood, rough-cast. Honfleur, as we approached, had a grey
distinctness that is difficult to describe. The atmosphere seemed
visible, around the angles of the buildings, as in certain Flemish
pictures, bringing out the fine old sombre piles from the depth of the
view, in a way to leave little concealed, while nothing was meretricious
or gaudy. At first, though we found these hues imposing, and even
beautiful, we thought the view would have been gayer and more agreeable,
had the tints been livelier; but a little use taught us that our tastes
had been corrupted. On our return home every structure appeared flaring
and tawdry. Even those of stone had a recent and mushroom air, besides
being in colours equally ill suited to architecture or a landscape. The
only thing of the sort in America which appeared venerable and of a
suitable hue, after an absence of eight years, was our own family abode,
and this, the despoiler, paint, had not defiled for near forty years.

We discharged part of our cargo at Honfleur, but the boat was still
greatly crowded. Fatigue and ill health rendered standing painful to
A - - , and all the benches were crowded. She approached a young girl of
about eighteen, who occupied _three chairs_. On one she was seated; on
another she had her feet; and the third held her _reticule_. Apologizing
for the liberty, A - - asked leave to put the _reticule_ on the second
chair, and to take the third for her own use. This request was refused!
The selfishness created by sophistication and a factitious state of
things renders such acts quite frequent, for it is more my wish to offer
you distinctive traits of character than exceptions. This case of
selfishness might have been a little stronger than usual, it is true,
but similar acts are of daily occurrence, _out of society_, in France.
_In society_, the utmost respect to the wants and feelings of others is
paid, vastly more than with us; while, with us, it is scarcely too
strong to say that such an instance of unfeeling selfishness could
scarcely have occurred at all. We may have occasion to inquire into the
causes of this difference in national manners hereafter.

The Seine narrows at Quilleboeuf, about thirty miles from Havre, to the
width of an ordinary European tide river. On a high bluff we passed a
ruin, called _Tancarville_, which was formerly a castle of the De
Montmorencies. This place was the cradle of one of William's barons; and
an English descendant, I believe, has been ennobled by the title of Earl
of Tankerville.

Above Quilleboeuf the river becomes exceedingly pretty. It is crooked, a
charm in itself, has many willowy islands, and here and there a grey
venerable town is seated in the opening of the high hills which contract
the view, with crumbling towers, and walls that did good service in the
times of the old English and French wars. There were fewer seats than
might have been expected, though we passed three or four. One near the
waterside, of some size, was in the ancient French style, with avenues
cut in formal lines, mutilated statues, precise and treeless terraces,
and other elaborated monstrosities. These places are not entirely
without a pretension to magnificence; but, considered in reference to
what is desirable in landscape gardening, they are the very _laid idéal_
of deformity. After winding our way for eight or ten hours amid such
scenes, the towers of Rouen came in view. They had a dark ebony-coloured
look, which did great violence to our Manhattanese notions, but which
harmonized gloriously with a bluish sky, the grey walls beneath, and a
background of hanging fields.

Rouen is a sea-port; vessels of two hundred, or two hundred and fifty
tons burden, lying at its quays. Here is also a custom-house, and our
baggage was again opened for examination. This was done amid a great
deal of noise and confusion, and yet so cursorily as to be of no real
service. At Havre, landing as we did in the night, and committing all to
Désirée the next day, I escaped collision with subordinates. But, not
having a servant, I was now compelled to look after our effects in
person. W - - protested that we had fallen among barbarians; what
between brawls, contests for the trunks, cries, oaths, and snatching,
the scene was equally provoking and comic.

Without schooling, without training of any sort, little checked by
morals, pressed upon by society, with nearly every necessary of life
highly taxed, and yet entirely loosened from the deference of feudal
manners, the Frenchmen of this class have, in general, become what they
who wish to ride upon their fellow mortals love to represent them as
being, truculent, violent, greedy of gain, and but too much disposed to
exaction. There is great _bonhomie_ and many touches of chivalry in the
national character; but it is asking too much to suppose that men who
are placed in the situation I have named, should not exhibit some of the
most unpleasant traits of human infirmity. Our trunks were put into a
handbarrow, and wheeled by two men a few hundred yards, the whole
occupying half an hour of time. For this service ten francs were
demanded. I offered five, or double what would have been required by a
drayman in New York, a place where labour is proverbially dear. This was
disdainfully refused, and I was threatened with the law. Of the latter I
knew nothing; but, determined not to be bullied into what I felt
persuaded was an imposition, I threw down the five francs and walked
away. These fellows kept prowling about the hotel the whole day,
alternately wheedling and menacing, without success. Towards night one
of them appeared, and returned the five francs, saying, that he gave me
his services for nothing. I thanked him, and put the money in my pocket.
This fit of dignity lasted about five minutes, when, as _finale_, I
received a proposal to pay the money again, and bring the matter to a
close, which was done accordingly.

An Englishman of the same class would have done his work in silence,
with a respect approaching to servility, and with a system that any
little _contretems_ would derange. He would ask enough, take his money
with a "thank 'ee, sir," and go off looking as surly as if he were
dissatisfied. An American would do his work silently, but independently
as to manner - but a fact will best illustrate the conduct of the
American. The day after we landed at New-York, I returned to the ship
for the light articles. They made a troublesome load, and filled a
horse-cart. "What do you think I _ought_ to get for carrying this load,
'sqire?" asked the cartman, as he looked at the baskets, umbrellas,
band-boxes, valises, secretaries, trunks, etc. etc.; "it is quite two
miles to Carroll Place." "It is, indeed; what is your fare?" "Only
thirty-seven and a half cents;" (about two francs;) "and it is justly
worth seventy-five, there is so much trumpery." "I will give you a
dollar." "No more need be said, sir; you shall have everything safe." I
was so much struck with this straight-forward manner of proceeding, after
all I had undergone in Europe, that I made a note of it the same day.

The Hôtel de l'Europe, at Rouen, was not a first-rate inn, for France,
but it effectually removed the disagreeable impression left by the Hôtel
d'Angleterre, at Havre. We were well lodged, well fed, and otherwise
well treated. After ordering dinner, all of a suitable age hurried off
to the cathedral.

Rouen is an old, and by no means a well-built town. Some improvements
along the river are on a large scale, and promise well; but the heart of
the city is composed principally of houses of wooden frames, with the
interstices filled in with cement. Work of this kind is very common in



Online LibraryJames Fenimore CooperRecollections of Europe → online text (page 6 of 29)