Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/Continental repose; or, A month's relaxation




I am one of that vast multitude which works hard for its daily existence. I may say from morning till night, and not unfrequently from night till early morning, I am busily employed. I gain my bread by the sweat of my brow, no less than the daily labourer, though the work of perspiration goes on inside instead of out. The consequence of this eternal routine ought to be a corresponding requirement of relaxation. Would you believe it, I remain in the rudest health, and in the highest condition of moral and physical enjoyment. It might be supposed that I therefore fail in creating that sympathy which is so flattering to us all. On the contrary: no sooner does the 12th or 15th of August come round than wife, children, friends, and acquaintance suddenly discover that I am the victim of too much labour: that I look worn, pale, overworked. Like thousands of my fellows, I must rest—I must have thorough repose. If I expect to resume my labours at a future period, I must go up Mont Blanc, or walk over Tête Noire or the Col de Balme, or pull down the Rhine from Basle to Rotterdam in an University eight, after having been made sick in an Ostend steamer, or amidst the villanous smells of Cologne. Now this is the sort of attention that a man receives very readily. Nothing is so flattering as the assurance that our personal appearance is an object of solicitude to our friends; and the plainer a man happens to be the more eagerly he swallows the incense. I confess that my own notions of rest are wholly at variance with this display of muscular Christianity, and that the dolce far niente of Italian life would be more to my taste than the summit of Mont Blanc if I had really reduced myself to the state of lassitude which is supposed to belong pre-eminently to briefless barristers and government clerks at the fall of the year. If I could be persuaded that the brain wants rest like the body, I should prefer taking it on my back in the sunshine, or with the tails of my coat over my arms in front of a fire; though the modern fashion of morning dressing seems to have rendered the latter precaution almost impossible. The brain wants refreshment and recreation, but not rest: it gets the former by a continental ramble, and a balance of fatigue is afforded to the material part of man, at the same time, after its unhealthy repose.

This theory readily accounts for the numbers who flock to the Continent, and answers satisfactorily various questions which the traveller puts to himself, as to the reasonableness of his choice. After the trouble of settling the route to be taken, the most becoming coloured suit for the Swiss lakes (the amount of taste displayed is remarkable), and the various advantages of this or that hotel, we have still to ask ourselves why we have deserted our own language, our beloved coinage, our well-furnished library, our excellent beefsteak, and good wine; the comforts of a home, in fact, for an incomprehensible jargon of foreign tongues, half-a-dozen moneys, manifestly invented for the plunder of the traveller, carpetless rooms at the back of the house, familiar waiters, six-franc dinners, beginning with pike and oil, and ending with potato-salad and unripe fruit, thin potations of bad hock, and the delusive snares of supposed economy? Why do we submit to the imposition of guides who are useless, slip and slide up one hill and down another, carry a bundle on our backs, which only contains sufficient to remind us what a comfortable thing a really clean shirt is, go without shaving, pack and unpack every twenty-four hours, carry our own soap from house to house, and put up with every conceivable want and necessity? Is it to escape the Penny Post?

Having done all this and a great deal more, and being, strange to say, still a little tired, like the man who after three dozen of oysters before dinner did not feel more hungry than before, I was induced to turn towards the Black Forest, in search of complete retirement. I knew Baden-Baden years ago as a quiet little place, with much beauty of scenery within a reasonable distance, where the gambling tables were the chief inducement to a few German, Russian, and English gentlemen to pass a month or two of the autumn. I remembered with great satisfaction that I could there get tolerable comfort, a theatre, a concert, good music, and sufficient society not to die of utter extinction. I could dine al fresco, in which I delight, either alone or with a friend. I could breakfast in the same way, and smoke my cigar, and lounge in and out of the town in a shooting-jacket, as the humour seized me; or, as I never gambled myself, I could watch the very extraordinary development of that singular passion in others, without being elbowed out of society by my virtuous neighbours. In a word, I had no doubt that I should find Baden-Baden what my grandmamma had told me it was years ago—a beautiful, quiet, but cheerful little retreat in the Black Forest.

The reader may imagine, or rather he cannot imagine, my surprise when I reached this sanctum of virtuous repose, supposed to be slumbering in its virgin beauty in the lap of surrounding hills and forests, on the 1st September, 1863. Hyde Park, the Bois de Boulogne, the Prado at Vienna, and the Congress at Frankfort, were all come together in front of the Conversazion’s Haus in Baden-Baden. From twenty different hotels were carriages of every sort being ruthlessly turned—imperials, valets, lady’s-maids, and all, to seek a more hospitable shelter elsewhere. Chairs and tables were at a premium, and beds were an impossibility. It occurred to one gentleman to hire a fiacre for the night; but his rest was a little disturbed by the necessity of turning out for a concert, Molière’s “Misanthrope,” and two balls. They called me fortunate in having previously secured a room. Whether that is the right term to apply to me under the circumstances, the reader shall have an opportunity of judging. On reaching the rooms, or the allée, where I expected to have at least three chairs to myself, I found, with difficulty, standing-room in an immense crowd of kings, princes, dukes, counts, barons, pickpockets, and ladies of all ranks and degrees of virtue and vice, listening to the strains of Mozart and Donizetti. I approached the restaurant, where I heard hundreds of voices shouting in every variety, not only of language, but of patois, for wines which they never got. I neared the gaming-tables with a hope of making some moral reflections, or speculating on the advantages of a private vice as applied to great public benefits: in other words, as to whether the profits of the tables were robbed of their sting by the erection of vast edifices, health-giving springs, and charitable distributions. I saw an enormous and heterogeneous mass of people all hustling and pushing for a place, miserable outsiders waiting with longing eyes for the moment when the front rank should be cleaned out, and a vacant seat left for a trial of their own system. For everybody has a system, of course. I saw reckless joviality, thoughtless levity, and careless indifference; I heard a curse or two in French, and English, and some feminine ill-humour at the caprices of fortune; but I saw no horrible features of that despair so graphically described by those whose imagination supplies the place of experience. As to the repose of this charming little watering-place, and the relaxation so peculiarly associated with its distractions, the bare notion of such a thing was an obvious insult to the genius of the place.

“Baden seems to be very much increased in the last few years,” said I to a portly Frenchman, with a hand full of napoleons, evidently waiting to prove his newly-discovered martingale.

“No,” answered he, eyeing the croupier, and sticking a pin once more through the pink card he held in his hand, “no, not much; though there are a great many persons here, just now. It is the race-week.”

Oh, the race-week! thought I: the race-week at Baden-Baden, which, to my uninitiated mind, represented something like half-a-dozen donkeys on Hampstead Heath or the sands at Brighton. After all, they can only last a day or two. So, about dinner-time, I returned to my hotel, feeling that, for the present, I was not much better off than at Interlachen or Lucerne, where some thousand excursion-tickets were manifestly in circulation, and where, by the appearance of some of the company, they had been evidently treated for at a reduced rate of so much per hundred. I determined, however, upon informing myself unmistakably on the point; so I inquired of the waiter how long they were to last.

“Ten days,” was the reply.

With a callous indifference I received the intelligence.

“Yes,” added he, with a frightful gaiety which portrayed a lively sense of the almighty dollar, “that is the 2nd, the 5th, the 7th, and the 10th; and on the last day is the grand steeplechase for 10,750 francs,—gentlemen-riders.”

If I have a weakness it is to see a foreigner ride a steeplechase; and here was an opportunity. I at once made up my mind, no inconsiderable parcel, and determined to see the thing out. This must be a great satisfaction to your readers, Mr. Editor.

After an excellent dinner, and some fine old Stein-wein, which has since produced a fit of the gout, in a society more remarkable for the frankness of its manner and the variety of its toilettes than for its decorum or morality, one of the most beautiful theatres in Europe opened its doors to receive me. “Le Misanthrope,” by M. Bressant and Madame Arnould Plessy, gave me unqualified satisfaction.

“Music hath charms,” &c. &c. I knew this; and, having a savage breast to soothe, I thought I would try its effect. Again I was enchanted. The whole place was redolent of magnificence and luxury. The rooms through which I passed were of every variety of French taste, from the Renaissance to our own times. No article of luxury or comfort was wanting. I listened to Madame Lablache de Meric (a daughter of our great basso), to M. Delle-Sedia, and to the exquisite violin of M. Alard, in a magnificent apartment decorated with the finest paintings and furniture that can be conceived; and here, again, I saw the first nobility of Prussia, Austria, and France, enslaved by charms which have grown too notorious for English gallantry. I sighed to think that, without prudery, however safe an English matron might have found herself in such proximity, the lovely scenery and the exquisite refinements of Baden-Baden could not well be participated in by the daughters of an English home. But this is not a pleasant subject; let us leave it.

And who has done this?—to whose taste and enterprise does Baden owe so much? Benazet, Benazet, Benazet, is on every lip. M. Benazet built the theatre, decorated the rooms; is proprietor of the baths; engages singers; supplies the charities, and establishes the races. M. Benazet cures the sick, amuses the ennuyés, clothes the naked, and feeds the poor. The concert for twenty francs, places reservées, was for the benefit of the hospital! Truly, M. Benazet is a great man, and charity will have us say, a good man too. And M. Benazet is neither more nor less than the lessee of the gaming tables. Of course I went to the races—races in the Black Forest! Could I resist? Along the flat road lying between lines of apple, plum, and lime trees, through endless gardens of potatoes, Indian corn, strips of turnips, and rank grass of the banks of the Oos, I was drawn by two remarkably well-fed quadrupeds, driven by a boy in yellow coat, with a professional bugle, and a long whip which was not permitted to rust in its socket. The slopes of the Black Forest, clothed in dark-coloured verdure, rose from the plains in various shapes, enclosing the valley with its dark shadows, and relieving an otherwise monotonous drive. Arrived at Iffetzheim, an unpretending village of uneven pavement and dingy old houses, we turned short round to the course. The whole was a scene of fairyland. The grand stand, and royal stand, and the Jockey Club stand, were hung with festoons of gay flowers, and sweetly-scented creepers stole up the pillars and along the gaily-decorated balconies. It required the payment of a napoleon for my ticket, to convince me that I was not in the private grounds of some philanthropist, who was enhancing the pleasures of a déjeûner by a little racing. So quiet, so refined, so un-English was everything connected with the sport itself. There was no ring; no turbulent layer of the odds disturbed the charm of the meeting by murdering the Queen’s English—I mean the Emperor’s French—by his “cinque contre,” the Baden vernacular for “five to one—bar one,” or some equally mysterious announcement.

The company was charming, and the popular element almost ignored in the choice selection of hats and toilettes that at once attracts the stranger. There was canary-coloured embroidery on a white ground picked out with crimson, and a canary-coloured head to match which was suggestive of a crested cockatoo. There was a bloomer looped up with every colour of the rainbow, and a mitigated form of Chinese mandarin in the richest of silks and most flowery of skirts. There were gentlemen all blue, and all brown, and all gray, in every material, from the coarsest brown holland to the most delicate flannel. The details of the scene are perfectly indescribable: but a North American Indian might have walked about in his native costume with impunity; and Deerfoot, warpaint, tomahawk and all, about to start for a ten-mile run, would have escaped the slightest observation. The conduct of the company was as irreproachable as their costumes were remarkable; but the repose of which I came in search was to be found in neither the one nor the other.

The vulgarities of the race-course—the Careless’s booths, the donkey’s importunities, the travelling musicians, the amateur prize-fighters, the knock-’em-downs, the Aunt Sallies, the fortune-tellers, even the dog and the policemen—were replaced by a few carriages opposite the stand, by some Austrian and Prussian cavalry practising the manége, by a Tyrolese rifleman, and by a score or two of soldiers of divers regiments in the neighbouring stations. Isabella, the first of bouquetières, presented roses to her Parisian friends with ineffable grace. Everything was en amateur, and the starter and judge had nothing professional about them but their capability. The former of the two is some degrees beyond the profession, if the absence of false starts be any criterion of excellence. Charming music relieved the short but necessary intervals between the races. Such was the programme of the four days’ sport; it contrasts favourably with the coarseness, vulgarity, and inconvenience of an English race-course. On leaving I was pointedly conducted into the line by a gentleman in a green uniform and a cocked hat, whose politeness was endorsed by the aid of a rifle and a sharp bayonet.

On the 10th I had the satisfaction of witnessing a German steeplechase. My national pride received a severe wound. Count Westphalen won on an excellent mare called Betsy Baker; his riding was the theme of even English admiration; and he beat a young Guardsman on Bridegroom, and the redoubtable Captain Hunt, an eminent performer, on our old acquaintance, the Colonel.

I like a few hours out of the twenty-four for sleep, and I have already said that the usual distractions of the place suffice to keep one out of bed till midnight at least. The “Malade Imaginaire” of M. Provost, the music of Beethoven, the cheerful society of the Conversazion’s Haus, or the seductions of play, answer that end sufficiently. I was congratulated on my good fortune in having found a room. Alas! it was a bedroom, but no sleeping apartment, “γάμος ἄγαμος,” as Sophocles hath it. Supposing that I retired to rest at midnight. The first two hours seem to have been devoted to sleep. I say seem, as a sort of euphemism; for I was sure to be riding a steeple-chase, or falling down a crevasse, or always winning, and never being able to remove my stake from the table. But about two in the morning the French division invariably returned; and as my bedroom had the advantage of lying on the same floor, I heard the arrival. It was not with muffled drums that these gallant young gentlemen sought their quarters. There seemed to be an assault upon every door but mine: women shrieked, men laughed, and there was that jabber, or running fire of unmeaning conversation, so peculiarly French, kept up throughout the infernal din. “Dites donc, dites donc, Alphonse,” cries a woman. “Ah, Voisin! où est ce cher Voisin?” “C’est ça.” “Parole d’honneur,” yells a third, apropos of nothing, as far as I could make out. “Diable m’emporte,” says a fourth; and a good devil certainly would have complied with his request; but nobody heeded his adjuration, and somehow, just as light began to dawn, about four a.m., the party dissolved itself into its primary elements, and went somehow. From that time till six a.m. I was only disturbed by an eccentric scream, or a banging of doors which announced a final retreat of some corps of the French army of invasion.

I am not exacting; but from four to six is not sufficient sleep, at least for a full-grown man of five feet eleven inches. At that hour the departing guests were astir, and as the porter made to descend a remarkably heavy portmanteau carrying everything contraband under the sun, and as “boots” in all languages was shouted over the banisters, and café was demanded as loudly though only in one, I can scarcely be said to have had a good night. How I longed that the custom-house officers might get hold of that precious “malle!” How savagely I prayed that all those young Frenchmen, with their friends of the Variétés and the Palais Royale, might leave their money in the hands of M. Benazet for the good of Baden-Baden; and how singularly my prayers were fulfilled! What a satisfaction I had in seeing them pay their bills at the hotel by other bills upon Paris, including a not reluctant loan from the landlord to carry them on their way.

I was in my first sleep on the road to Nancy: travelling home by easy stages, but making a night’s journey to Paris, as being cooler and less liable to intrusion. I sleep remarkably well in a railroad!

“Bless my soul, what’s that?” as smash went something in the next compartment, and a yell—Gallic beyond all question—as of a thousand lunatics, broke the silence of the night. “Dites donc, dites donc, où est M. Voisin? Voisin, mon cher Voisin!” Is it possible? Yes, there they are again—dining. Paté de foie gras, and Heaven knows how many bottles of Chambertin! The charms of that night: the weary hours, relieved only at the stations by the hilarious riot of my last week’s neighbours, whose bottles of Chambertin went flying out of the windows, leaving their contents in the empty compartment of their heads. But everything has an end, and when we reached Paris I sincerely but politely recommended them to God; for indeed I hope He will have them in His keeping, and that it may, for the present, be at some distance from me.

My journey from that point was simple enough; and if the douaniers, the commissionaires, the touts, and the stewards would have allowed me to rest in peace, I should not have felt so exceedingly tired as I did on my return from my holiday. They all say peace when there is no peace. A month’s vacation is one of the most fatiguing things in the world; and I have returned for the twentieth time to my ordinary occupations duly impressed with the infinite labour of taking a holiday. The fact is, holidays ought to come of themselves; but there is more exertion and forethought required to provide for our recreation than for our daily bread. Everything is overdone: Interlachen, Lucerne, Zurich, Baden, once so charmingly luxurious in their silence and magnificence, or voluptuous repose, have become huge caravanserais for the English, French, Austrian, Russian, and American peoples. The hotels are all full, the prices are all raised, the wines are adulterated; and at every station of consequence there is a struggle which is not exceeded by the graphic descriptions of the terminus on the day of a “slashing fight” for the belt. As soon as I shall have finished this article I shall warm myself at the fire after the fashion said to be peculiarly English, and shall endeavour to think about nothing; and I believe it will be of more service to me than all the wonders which I have not seen in my month’s inquiry after rest.