"Wenten forth in heore wey with mony wyse tales,
And hedden leve to lyen al heore lyf aftir."
I DON'T know about travellers' "hedden leve" to lie, but that they "taken leve" no one can doubt who has ever followed their wandering footsteps. They say the most charming and audacious things, in blessed indifference to the fact that somebody may possibly believe them. They start strange hopes and longings in the human heart, and they pave the way for disappointments and disasters. They record the impression of a careless hour as though it were the experience of a lifetime.
There is a delightful little book on French rivers, written some years ago by a vivacious and highly imaginative gentleman named Molloy. It is a rose-tinted volume from the first page to the last, so full of gay adventures that it would lure a mollusc from his shell. Every town and every village yields some fresh delight, some humorous exploit to the four oarsmen who risk their lives to see it; but the few pages devoted to Amboise are of a dulcet and irresistible persuasiveness. They fill the reader's soul with a haunting desire to lay down his well-worn cares and pleasures, to say goodbye to home and kindred, and to seek that favoured spot. Touraine is full of beauty, and steeped to the lips in historic crimes. Turn where we may, her fairness charms the eye, her memories stir the heart. But Mr. Molloy claims for Amboise something rarer in France than loveliness or romance, something which no French town has ever yet been known to possess,—a slumberous and soul-satisfying silence. "We dropped under the very walls of the Castle," he writes, "without seeing a soul. It was a strange contrast to Blois in its absolute stillness. There was no sound but the noise of waters rushing through the arches of the bridge. It might have been the palace of the Sleeping Beauty, but was only one of the retrospective cities that had no concern with the present."
Quiet brooded over the ivied towers and ancient water front. Tranquillity, unconcern, a gentle and courteous aloofness surrounded and soothed the intrepid travellers. When, in the early morning, the crew pushed off in their frail boat, less than a dozen citizens assembled to watch the start. Even the peril of the performance (and there are few things more likely to draw a crowd than the chance of seeing four fellow mortals drown) failed to awaken curiosity. Nine men stood silent on the shore when the outrigger shot into the swirling river, and it is the opinion of the chronicler that Amboise "did not often witness such a gathering." Nine quiet men were, for Amboise, something in the nature of a mob.
It must be remembered that Mr. Molloy's book is not a new one; but then Touraine is neither new nor mutable. Nothing changes in its beautiful old towns, the page of whose history has been turned for centuries. What if motors now whirl in a white dust through the heart of France? They do not affect the lives of the villages through which they pass. The simple and primitive desire of the motorist is to be fed and to move on, to be fed again and to move on again, to sleep and to start afresh. That unavoidable waiting between trains which now and then compelled an old-time tourist to look at a cathedral or a château, by way of diverting an empty hour, no longer retards progress. The motorist needs never wait. As soon as he has eaten, he can go,—a privilege of which he gladly avails himself. A month at Amboise taught us that, at the feeding-hour, motors came flocking like fowls, and then, like fowls, dispersed. They were disagreeable while they lasted, but they never lasted long. Replete with a five-course luncheon, their fagged and grimy occupants sped on to distant towns and dinner.
But why should we, who knew well that there is not, and never has been, a quiet corner in all France, have listened to a traveller's tale, and believed in a silent Amboise? Is there no limit to human credulity? Does experience count for nothing in the Bourbon-like policy of our lives? It is to England we must go if we seek for silence, that gentle, pervasive silence which wraps us in a mantle of content. It was in Porlock that Coleridge wrote "Kubla Khan," transported, Heaven knows whither, by virtue of the hushed repose that consecrates the sleepiest hamlet in Great Britain. It was at Stoke Pogis that Gray composed his "Elegy." He could never have written—
"And all the air a solemn stillness holds,"
in the vicinity of a French village.
But Amboise! Who would go to rural England, live on ham and eggs, and sleep in a bed harder than Pharaoh's heart, if it were possible that a silent Amboise awaited him? The fair fresh vegetables of France, her ripe red strawberries and glowing cherries, her crisp salads and her caressing mattresses lured us no less than the vision of a bloodstained castle, and the wide sweep of the Loire flashing through the joyous landscape of Touraine. In the matter of beauty, Amboise outstrips all praise. In the matter of romance, she leaves nothing to be desired. Her splendid old Château—half palace and half fortress—towers over the river which mirrors its glory and perpetuates its shame. She is a storehouse of historic memories, she is the loveliest of little towns, she is in the heart of a district which bears the finest fruit and has the best cooks in France; but she is not, and never has been, silent, since the days when Louis the Eleventh was crowned, and she gave wine freely to all who chose to be drunk and merry at her charge.
If she does not give her wine to-day, she sells it so cheaply—lying girt by vine-clad hills—that many of her sons are drunk and merry still. The sociable habit of setting a table in the open street prevails at Amboise. Around it labourers take their evening meal, to the accompaniment of song and sunburnt mirth. It sounds poetic and it looks picturesque,—like a picture by Teniers or Jan Steen,—but it is not a habit conducive to repose.
As far as I can judge,—after a month's experience,—the one thing no inhabitant of Amboise ever does is to go to bed. At midnight the river front is alive with cheerful and strident voices. The French countryman habitually speaks to his neighbour as if he were half a mile away; and when a score of countrymen are conversing in this key, the air rings with their clamour. They sing in the same lusty fashion; not through closed lips, as is the custom of English singers, but rolling out the notes with volcanic energy from the deep craters of their throats. When our admirable waiter—who is also our best friend—frees his soul in song as he is setting the table, the walls of the dining-room quiver and vibrate. By five o'clock in the morning every one except ourselves is on foot and out of doors. We might as well be, for it is custom, not sleep, which keeps us in our beds. The hay wagons are rolling over the bridge, the farmhands are going to work, the waiter, in an easy undress, is exchanging voluble greetings with his many acquaintances, the life of the town has begun.
The ordinary week-day life, I mean, for on Sundays the market people have assembled by four, and there are nights when the noises never cease. It is no unusual thing to be awakened, an hour or two after midnight, by a tumult so loud and deep that my first impression is one of conspiracy or revolution. The sound is not unlike the hoarse roar of Sir Henry Irving's admirably trained mobs,—the only mobs I have ever heard,—and I jump out of bed, wondering if the President has been shot, or the Chamber of Deputies blown up by malcontents. Can these country people have heard the news, as the shepherds of Peloponnesus heard of the fall of Syracuse, through the gossiping of wood devils, and, like the shepherds, have hastened to carry the intelligence? When I look out of my window, the crowd seems small for the uproar it is making. Armand, the waiter, who, I am convinced, merely dozes on a dining-room chair, so as to be in readiness for any diversion, stands in the middle of the road, gesticulating with fine dramatic gestures. I cannot hear what is being said, because everybody is speaking at once; but after a while the excitement dies away, and the group slowly disperses, shouting final vociferations from out of the surrounding darkness. The next day when I ask the cause of the disturbance, Armand looks puzzled at my question. He does not seem aware that anything out of the way has happened; but finally explains that "quelques amis" were passing the hotel, and that Madame must have heard them stop and talk. The incident is apparently too common an occurrence to linger in his mind.
As for the Amboise dogs, I do not know whether they really possess a supernatural strength which enables them to bark twenty-four hours without intermission, or whether they divide themselves into day and night pickets, so that, when one band retires to rest, the other takes up the interrupted duty. The French villager, who values all domestic pets in proportion to the noise they can make, delights especially in his dogs, giant black-and-tan terriers for the most part, of indefatigable perseverance in their one line of activity. Their bark is high-pitched and querulous rather than deep and defiant, but for continuity it has no rival upon earth. Our hotel—in all other respects unexceptionable—possesses two large bulldogs which have long ago lost their British phlegm, and acquired the agitated yelp of their Gallic neighbours. They could not be quiet if they wanted to, for heavy sleigh-bells (unique decorations for a bulldog) hang about their necks, and jangle merrily at every step. In the courtyard lives a colony of birds. One virulent parrot which shrieks its inarticulate wrath from morning until night, but which does—be it remembered to its credit—go to sleep at sundown; three paroquets; two cockatoos of ineffable shrillness, and a cageful of canaries and captive finches. When taken in connection with the dogs, the hotel cat, the operatic Armand, and the cook who plays "See, O Norma!" on his flute every afternoon and evening, it will be seen that Amboise does not so closely resemble the palace of the Sleeping Beauty as Mr. Molloy has given us to understand.
All other sounds, however, melt into a harmonious murmur when compared to the one great speciality of the village,—stone-cutting in the open streets. Whenever one of the picturesque old houses is crumbling into utter decay, a pile of stone is dumped before it, and the easy-going masons of Amboise prepare to patch up its walls. No particular method is observed, the work progresses after the fashion of a child's block house, and the principal labour lies in dividing the lumps of stone. This is done with a rusty old saw pulled slowly backward and forward by two men, the sound produced resembling a succession of agonized shrieks. It goes on for hours and hours, with no apparent result except the noise; while a handsome boy, in a striped blouse and broad blue sash, completes the discord by currying the stone with an iron curry-comb,—a process I have never witnessed before, and ardently hope never to witness again. If one could imagine fifty school-children all squeaking their slate pencils down their slates together,—who does not remember that blood-curdling music of his youth?—one might gain some feeble notion of the acute agony induced by such an instrument of torture. Agony to the nervous visitor alone; for the inhabitants of Amboise love their shrieking saws and currycombs, just as they love their shrieking parrots and cockatoos. They gather in happy crowds to watch the blue-sashed boy, and drink in the noise he makes. We drink it in, too, as he is immediately beneath our windows. Then we look at the castle walls glowing in the splendour of the sunset, and at the Loire sweeping in magnificent curves between the grey-green poplar trees; at the noble width of the horizon, and at the deepening tints of the sky; and we realize that a silent Amboise would be an earthly Paradise, too fair for this sinful world.