A Little Tour In France/Chapter XXXVII
I have been trying to remember whether I fasted all the way to Macon, which I reached at an advanced hour of the evening, and think I must have done so except for the purchase of a box of nougat at Montelimart (the place is famous for the manufacture of this confection, which, at the station, is hawked at the windows of the train) and for a bouillon, very much later, at Lyons. The journey beside the Rhone past Valence, past Tournon, past Vienne - would have been charming, on that luminous Sunday, but for two disagreeable accidents. The express from Marseilles, which I took at Orange, was full to overflowing; and the only refuge I could find was an inside angle in a carriage laden with Germans, who had command of the windows, which they occupied as strongly as they have been known to occupy other strategical positions. I scarcely know, however, why I linger on this particular discomfort, for it was but a single item in a considerable list of grievances, grievances dispersed through six weeks of constant railway travel in France. I have not touched upon them at an earlier stage of this chronicle, but my reserve is not owing to any sweetness of association. This form of locomotion, in the country of the amenities, is attended with a dozen discomforts; almost all the conditions of the business are detestable. They force the sentimental tourist again and again to ask himself whether, in consideration of such mortal annoyances, the game is worth the candle. Fortunately, a railway journey is a good deal like a sea voyage; its miseries fade from the mind as soon as you arrive. That is why I completed, to my great satisfaction, my little tour in France. Let this small effusion of ill-nature be my first and last tribute to the whole despotic gare: the deadly salle d'attente, the insufferable delays over one's luggage, the porterless platform, the overcrowded and illiberal train. How many a time did I permit myself the secret reflection that it is in perfidious Albion that they order this matter best! How many a time did the eager British mercenary, clad in velveteen and clinging to the door of the carriage as it glides into the station, revisit my invidious dreams! The paternal porter and the responsive hansom are among the best gifts of the English genius to the world. I hasten to add, faithful to my habit (so insufferable to some of my friends) of ever and again readjusting the balance after I have given it an honest tip, that the bouillon at Lyons, which I spoke of above, was, though by no means an ideal bouillon, much better than any I could have obtained at an English railway station. After I had imbibed it, I sat in the train (which waited a long time at Lyons) and, by the light of one of the big lamps on the platform, read all sorts of disagreeable things in certain radical newspapers which I had bought at the book-stall. I gathered from these sheets that Lyons was in extreme commotion. The Rhone and the Saone, which form a girdle for the splendid town, were almost in the streets, as I could easily believe from what I had seen of the country after leaving Orange. The Rhone, all the way to Lyons, had been in all sorts of places where it had no business to be, and matters were naturally not improved by its confluence with the charming and copious stream which, at Macon, is said once to have given such a happy opportunity to the egotism of the capital. A visitor from Paris (the anecdote is very old), being asked on the quay of that city whether he didn't admire the Saone, replied good-naturedly that it was very pretty, but that in Paris they spelled it with the ei. This moment of general alarm at Lyons had been chosen by certain ingenious persons (I credit them, perhaps, with too sure a prevision of the rise of the rivers) for practising further upon the apprehensions of the public. A bombshell filled with dynamite had been thrown into a cafe, and various votaries of the comparatively innocuous petit verre had been wounded (I am not sure whether any one had been killed) by the irruption. Of course there had been arrests and incarcerations, and the "Intransigeant" and the "Rappel" were filled with the echoes of the explosion. The tone of these organs is rarely edifying, and it had never been less so than on this occasion. I wondered, as I looked through them, whether I was losing all my radicalism; and then I wondered whether, after all, I had any to lose. Even in so long await as that tiresome delay at Lyons I failed to settle the question, any more than I made up my mind as to the probable future of the militant democracy, or the ultimate form of a civilization which should have blown up everything else. A few days later, the waters went down it Lyons; but the democracy has not gone down.
I remember vividly the remainder of that evening which I spent at Macon, - remember it with a chattering of the teeth. I know not what had got into the place; the temperature, for the last day of October, was eccentric and incredible. These epithets may also be applied to the hotel itself, - an extraordinary structure, all facade, which exposes an uncovered rear to the gaze of nature. There is a demonstrative, voluble landlady, who is of course part of the facade; but everything behind her is a trap for the winds, with chambers, corridors, staircases, all exhibited to the sky, as if the outer wall of the house had been lifted off. It would have been delightful for Florida, but it didn't do for Burgundy, even on the eve of November 1st, so that I suffered absurdly from the rigor of a season that had not yet begun. There was something in the air; I felt it the next day, even on the sunny quay of the Saone, where in spite of a fine southerly exposure I extracted little warmth from the reflection that Alphonse de Lamartine had often trodden the flags. Macon struck me, somehow, as suffering from a chronic numbness, and there was nothing exceptionally cheerful in the remarkable extension of the river. It was no longer a river, - it had become a lake; and from my window, in the painted face of the inn, I saw that the opposite bank had been moved back, as it were, indefinitely. Unfortunately, the various objects with which it was furnished had not been moved as well, the consequence of which was an extraordinary confusion in the relations of thing. There were always poplars to be seen, but the poplar had become an aquatic plant. Such phenomena, however, at Macon attract but little attention, as the Saone, at certain seasons of the year, is nothing if not expansive. The people are as used to it as they appeared to be to the bronze statue of Lamartine, which is the principal monument of the place, and which, representing the poet in a frogged overcoat and topboots, improvising in a high wind, struck me as even less casual in its attitude than monumental sculpture usually succeeds in being. It is true that in its present position I thought better of this work of art, which is from the hand of M. Falquiere, than when I had seen it through the factitious medium of the Salon of 1876. I walked up the hill where the older part of Macon lies, in search of the natal house of the amant d'Elvire, the Petrarch whose Vaucluse was the bosom of the public. The Guide-Joanne quotes from "Les Confidences" a description of the birthplace of the poet, whose treatment of the locality is indeed poetical. It tallies strangely little with the reality, either as regards position or other features; and it may be said to be, not an aid, but a direct obstacle, to a discovery of the house. A very humble edifice, in a small back street, is designated by a municipal tablet, set into its face, as the scene of Lamartine's advent into the world. He himself speaks of a vast and lofty structure, at the angle of a place, adorned with iron clamps, with a porte haute et large and many other peculiarities. The house with the tablet has two meagre stories above the basement, and (at present, at least) an air of extreme shabbiness; the place, moreover, never can have been vast. Lamartine was accused of writing history incorrectly, and apparently he started wrong at first: it had never become clear to him where he was born. Or is the tablet wrong? If the house is small, the tablet is very big.