Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/Glimpses of French village life

Once a Week, Series 1, Volume VIII (1862-1863)
Glimpses of French village life
by Miss Knox


Bordeaux possesses the unenviable reputation of being the dearest town in France: we need hardly descant here on her well-known merits and beauties, but ask our reader to accompany us to Arcachon, a village about two hours distant from it by rail, where we lately established ourselves for some months.

Few English, famed though our travelled countrymen are for ubiquity, are acquainted with this pleasant nook in the department of “La Gironde,” with its delicious spring climate, its immense pine-forest, stretching on for forty miles in one unbroken green, and its unsophisticated inhabitants. It has sprung into existence within the last twenty years; twenty years hence it will probably be a fashionable resort in winter and spring. Meanwhile, before it has become spoiled by English visitors, Arcachon is charming. Her picturesque châlets gladden the eye, each generally standing in a garden of its own, which becomes a blaze of glory as spring advances. In April and May she looks strikingly pretty; her pines and acacias scent the air with their rich profusion of blossoms—the “Mediterranean” heath in the forest is a mass of bloom—and pleasant sights and sounds abound on every side.

Arcachon is on the sea. In front she looks out upon the tranquil Bassin d’Arcachon, as the arm of the Bay of Biscay is called, which washes the shores of the village. Behind is the long stretch of unbroken pine forest, the lordly pines towering in all the dignity of their majestic stature above the mazy underwood of arbutus and heaths in several varieties.

The advent of an English party was an event in the annals of Arcachon; and when it became known that we were about to make some stay, and search for a house suitable for our wants amongst the many picturesque villas, great excitement prevailed. We could hardly appear outside our hotel doors without finding ourselves a great object of attraction, and the centre of a group of anxious householders, each of whom had a perfect house—at least in their estimation. One old lady held forth with a volubility, to which only a Frenchwoman could ever hope to attain, on the ombrage délicieux of the acacias in her garden, quite undeterred by the fact that, in January, they were leafless.

“If we went to her we could even dine under their shade, in a bower, the scent of which was too delicious to be described.”

“And the insects, Madame, are they delicious also?” we ventured to remark.

In her well-regulated garden, it appeared, such things were never known. But then, we have the bad taste thoroughly to dislike al fresco meals, and we conceive them to be utter delusions as far as pleasure is concerned, even under the best circumstances. That this is an oddity, dear reader, we are well aware; but what would you have? English people are necessarily eccentric. To dine daily out of doors would be to us misery, and that being the case, we decline the possible enjoyments and certain draughts of the acacia bower, though with many assumed pangs of regret. Madame was inconsolable, so were we; and we parted the best of friends.

After some days we found ourselves possessors of a very picturesquely-situated house, surrounded on all sides by its garden. Beyond the stately pines stood our immovable army of guardians. Our sitting-rooms faced the sun, and opened on a wooden verandah-shaded gallery, which encircled the house, and from which a double flight of wooden stairs descended to the garden. We often wandered into the forest, the balmy medicated air of which is so celebrated for its beneficial effect in cases of affections of the lungs and chest, and discovered new beauties almost every day. As the season advanced the woodcutters began to be busy tapping the pine-trees, to make the turpentine flow.

On one occasion, as we were lying under a tree far up in the forest, a woodcutter, with an attendant satellite in the form of a black goat, began to scrape an adjoining pine, and we fraternised immensely. After discussing turpentine and resin, he begged for some information about England.

“Did it ever stop raining in our Fatherland?”

“But seldom, in Ireland, at least,” truth obliged us to confess.

“Had we any mountains there?”

Here, to make up for our candid admission about the rain, we delivered what appeared to us an incomparably eloquent oration on the beauties of our mountain chains. When we paused for a reply, our feelings received a terrible shock, for our résinier only said, Ah! he would not at all like English mountains from our description; they must apparently be only rocks—not sandhills, as they had in France. Besides, we had no “Bassin,” he heard, in England; n’est ce pas? With all our patriotism, we had to confess that le Bassin most undeniably did not exist in England, at which he was considerably, to our amusement, much elated.

When we wished for solitude we would stroll into the forest. In ten minutes we could find ourselves in the midst of complete and soothing silence, only now and then broken by the sounds from the hatchet of some distant woodcutter.

What a contrast if we turned our steps to the main street and Strand! There we find ourselves in the midst of a scene of animation and bustle, thoroughly French. The picturesque is scattered broadcast. How can we—with no colours but black and white at our disposal—paint the colours true to Nature? The very gamins, playing at marbles on the footway, seem to have studied the becoming in the arrangement of their clothes. Scarlet flannel coats abound; and the caps, of every shape and colour, are they not worn with the jauntiest of airs?

Here comes a procession of fishermen and fisherwomen, wending their way home from the Strand, on their return from oyster-dredging, laden with the baskets of their spoil. Which are the men, and which the women? One may well ask: it was some time before we discovered that the gay many-coloured silk-handkerchief floating from the heads of some of the party formed the peculiar characteristic of the feminine fisherman, who discards her petticoats in favour of immense fishing-boots reaching to the thigh, put on over her scarlet or blue flannel trousers.

Here comes, too, Mademoiselle Louise, blanchisseuse de fin, the beauty of Arcachon (where good looks abound), who, under the pretext of particularly wanting “just the smallest possible little grain of starch,” drops out, like her neighbours, for a gossip. How handsome the girl looks in her coquettish white cap, the border of which is crimped with marvellous art, and her hands jauntily placed in the pockets of her braided apron. Even Jacquot, generally considered the most morose of green parrots, unbends from his dignified reserve at the sight of her charms, and makes her a series of low, courtier-like bows from his perch at the épicier’s door. Jacquot is a favourite of ours; for he is the cleverest of clever birds. To us, too, he is always civility itself, though his temper (even the great have their weaknesses) is not, we must confess, always irreproachable, and he only admits a favoured few to terms of intimate friendship.

When we go over to him, and in a few flattering words praise the grace of the profound salaams with which he had honoured Mademoiselle Louise, as if quite overcome by the compliments, and yet anxious to show his gratitude for them, he sidles bashfully along his perch, and after pausing reflectively with averted, drooping head, as if to hide his blushes, he coyly offers us his hand in friendship, and finally clambers on our shoulder, from which eminence he harangues the busy street with, I am afraid, more vigour than politeness. He accompanies us most willingly in a short ramble to various shops, but when we think to inveigle him home with us, he makes such a violent attack on our hat, that with all speed we have to deposit him at his own door again, when we find great excitement prevailing among the gamins. An Irish friend of ours has appeared on the scene, and proposed foot-races to the boys, who seize, with the greatest eagerness on the idea, and cries of “des courses! des courses!” rend the air. Even a little four-year old, in purple pinafore, intends to try his chance. While the runners are being divided into batches, sabots thrown off, and all preparations being made, that little urchin of three, who is under a vow to wear blue and white only, and whose life seems spent in the futile attempt to make successful dirt-pies out of sand, seizing the favourable opportunity afforded by the general confusion, makes a surreptitious attack on Jacquot’s tail, which our friend resents so fiercely that the little dirt-pie architect is carried off the scene in floods of tears, and Jacquot himself, rather unjustly, is sent in-doors, at which he complains loudly. Finally the signal is given, and off the runners start. Purple Pinafore’s efforts to keep in front are very futile, and he is soon left standing in solitary grandeur in the middle of the street, more than half inclined to cry, till he bethinks himself of the solace of his never-failing, ever-present friends and comforters, Thumbs, which soothe all his sorrows, as he placidly sucks them with an air of the most thorough enjoyment; and he stoutly refuses to part with them even when offered an apple in exchange.

Ah! my little friend! may you always be equally staunch in your friendships, and superior to bribery! Our moralising reverie was, however, put an end to by the return of the runners. One fellow in a scarlet flannel coat came in first easily; but there is a most exciting struggle for second place, finally gained by a swarthy lad with large ear-rings. Number three had to be consoled for his monetary disappointment by a present of apples.

But, suddenly, we perceive an extraordinary, unearthly-looking object striding up the street towards us, covering a dozen paces in a stride. Our first idea is that the “tall Agrippa,” spoken of in a story book, “so tall he all but reached the sky,” has been suddenly brought to life again, and we feel quite a thrill of excitement at the prospect of seeing so eminent an individual in the flesh. We await his approach in astonishment, mingled with awe. How the children scatter as he comes nearer and nearer! Alas! alas! “tall Agrippa” turns out to be only a herdsman from the Landes; his gigantic stature arises from his being mounted on stilts, fully five feet high. No wonder he clears the ground at such a pace. He bears on his back a gigantic fishing-basket, out of which dangle the heads of the unfortunate fowl he has brought to sell to the Arcachonais public. John the Baptist like, he is clad in a sheepskin garment, which, the woolly side out, is girt about his waist by a leathern girdle, and in his right hand he carries a wand twice as long as himself, which he uses as a walking-stick. When he is out of hearing, a servant-girl near us gives an attentive audience a long account of the terrors she felt the first time “that monster there” suddenly appeared before her. “How could she hope to escape from a monster that could cross the garden she was in, just in two steps?” It was impossible. At all events, her legs failed her at the critical moment, and she dropped trembling and breathless behind a bush, and gave herself up for lost. Happily for her, on he strode, to her unspeakable relief, and she escaped his notice. “Perhaps he could not see so far down as the ground,” which ingenious supposition elicits great applause from the listeners, who are very sympathising to the damsel’s terrors.

We now migrate to the shop of the apothecary, for the pleasure of a talk in English; our friend the pharmacien, possessing the distinction of being the only inhabitant of Arcachon, who can, in the very least degree, speak our native tongue. As for ourselves, the people never tire of expressing their intense admiration and astonishment at our fluency in the English language, quite oblivious of the fact that it is natural we should speak our native tongue with ease. After having laid in a large stock of new ideas on the subject of English pronunciation, we wend our steps homeward. How the great waggons we meet on our way, laden with resin from the forest, remind us of Rosa Bonheur’s pictures! As they advance slowly towards us, the foreshortened front view of the whole equipage is a wonderful sight; and a close inspection of the unique harness arrangements does not detract from the peculiarity of the tout ensemble. The mules in the first waggon look anything but happy under the ladder-like yoke, between the rungs of which their heads are past; but seem considerably to bemoan the unsociable arrangement by which their heads are kept nearly three feet asunder, and all demonstrations of friendship to each other thus relentlessly prevented. The waggons are on their way to La Teste de Buch, that ancient town to which so many historical memories cling, and over which a halo of glory still hovers, from its having in the old, old days of yore been the habitat of the famous Captaux de Buch—those “mighty men of valour,” who are now gone the way of all flesh. Wrapt in a shroud of glory, they have crumbled to dust in the plain of Lamothe. Once the mightiest of feudal lords, now—alas! that we should have to say it—their very names well nigh forgotten in the very region over which they exercised their majestic sway.