Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 5/Sea-bathing in France

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I saw it at St. Malo, where it is said to flourish. There was nothing very particular in the shape of the machines which were drawn up on the beach. Except that they were made of canvas instead of wood, and had much lower wheels than ours, they had the same bald, gritty look which those vehicles generally wear. They were twenty or thirty yards from the edge of the water, and therefore, as I was not thinking much about bathers, but idling along in a promiscuous sort of way, I supposed that the day’s dipping was over. Judge of my surprise when, on passing close by a machine, the door opened, and a short, stout gentleman, in a jacket and drawers of a large staring check flannel, stepped out with a smile and a shudder—like a clown. I almost expected him to put his head on one side, and say “Here we are again,” before turning a summersault.

But it was the mayor. The mayor of St. Malo, going to bathe. Or if it was not the mayor, it was as good, for I saw him afterwards, and he had a red ribbon in his button-hole, to which no end of people took off their hats. Perhaps he was a Préfet. At any rate, he had on nothing but breeches and a shortish jacket, of flaring check flannel, and proceeded to paddle down to the water after a few minutes, with Mrs. M., who popped out of a neighbouring machine similarly dressed, on his arm; and I can assure you Mrs. M. did not owe all her charms to crinoline.

Bless my heart, I said to myself, this is worth coming to France to see. So I brisked up, opened my eyes, got a chair for a sous, sat down, and took it all in. Let me reflect—no, not reflect—but consult my notes, which I made on the sly, lest a ferocious gendarme, who paced about, should suspect me of sketching a fort, and sabre me on the spot.

Let me see. There were about fifty or sixty machines in this village, all of canvas, and upon very low wheels, the floor of the hut not being above a foot from the ground. They are seldom, if ever, taken into the Mater, and of course, a plunge from one of them is impossible even then, as they cannot draw above six inches. There are rafts moored at different distances from the brink, so that those bathers who want to take headers may be suited—there being always a raft in about three or four feet water, and another further on.

But whatever you do when you are fairly afloat, you must paddle in like a goose.

The ladies and gentlemen all bathe together, often walking down to the sea, or up from it, arm in arm. When Mr. and Mrs. M. came out thus, and his aldermanic proportions were more developed by the clinging of the wet flannel (I won’t mention her), the effect was so odd, the contrast to English habits so grotesque, that I laughed—respectfully. At first, I thought that several figures in the water were boys, but they turned out at last to be young ladies—who came up dripping from the ocean, like so many Venuses in flannel dittoes.

Many of them evidently wore their own bathing dresses, which fitted so jauntily, and were so prettily trimmed and ornamented, that I have no doubt they were made to measure—women tailors, I presume. When I came to think about it, and had seen through the novelty of the “costume,” as it is called on the beach, I saw how decent and sensible it was. The suit was really nothing but Bloomer. In many cases a trifle more close fitting and short-skirted; but the lines of the model were Bloomerian. Many of the men wore dresses as tight as an acrobat’s; and, indeed, looked so like them, that you half expected to see the mat and pole produced; or, at least, a “pyramid” made. By the time I had sat there an hour, the number of bathers increased fast. There was quite a crowd of expectants and friends. The former, with their dresses rolled up under their arms, ready to get into the next vacant machine, the latter reading, working, or sitting in chairs, idly waiting till the bath should be over. Fresh bathers paddled down in twos or threes, while others continually emerged, and came up the beach dripping; the suit was so complete in some cases, that the wet figure looked as if the bath I had been taken by accident, not choice. Everything was well organised. There were three or four sunburnt women with bare feet, and hats with “Service des Bains” on the band, like the name of a ship; and men who gave lessons in swimming, or helped to shove the heads of recusant children under water. A “Buvette” on the beach provided glasses of liqueur to those who wanted to take the chill off themselves, and there was a large copper of hot water on wheels, to supply bathers who wished to wash their feet after walking across the dry sand to their machines. One tremendous woman, who was mistress of the ceremonies, directed her crew where to take these little addenda of baths, and dispensed the dresses to those who brought none of their own. Moreover, she arranged the order of procedure, and insisted strictly on the rule, “first come, first served.” She was a tremendous woman, with a voice like a speaking-trumpet, and knitted rapidly all the time she was giving her orders, or listening to the petitions of bathers. But she had a tender heart. All at once, I may as well give the cries and conversation in English, for though I can scramble on with French—after a sort—I honestly confess I funk the spelling of short conversational speeches with unnecessary y’s in them; all at once, then, there was a great shriek, and the idle crowd rushed to the edge of the water, wildly excited in a moment. Two children had got out of their depth, and were being carried out and under by the tide; their little black dots of heads sunk beneath the surface. Then the big woman’s colour went, she stopped her knitting, and putting her right hand to her side, I thought she would have fainted, as she cried in a half-choked voice:

“Good God! the poor little infants! look! Oh—O——h!”

But the acrobats splashed in, and plucked them out, for they were as yet only in five feet water. This episode over, the directress went on with her knitting, and shouted out directions to the bathing men in the water, two hundred yards off.

To-morrow, thought I, I will come and have a dip here, myself, for I was eager to experience the whole sensation. When I went back to our hotel, and told my wife how they bathed in France, she thought it shocking, but after two or three visits admitted that the arrangements were both convenient and decorous.

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But about my own bath. Next day I repaired to the beach, and going to a place like an Aldershot hut, with a notice outside, “Billets pour les Bains,” found an old man with a big book at a desk just within the entrance, taking down names; he had two large bunches of tin labels before him hung on wire, like keys. The building was fitted up like a large bottle-rack on the shelves of which lay bathing suits, rolled up, accessible and dry. When the old gentleman had, with a great display of precision, disposed of the group which was being served when I entered, I went up to his desk, and asked him for a ticket.

“One?” says he.

“One,” said I. “And ‘costume,” I added, and he repeated.

Then he slowly took two of the tin labels, one from each ring—his hands were rheumatic—put down their numbers in his book, looked over his spectacles, and said:

“Eighteen sous.”

So I paid him, and he handed me the tickets, with directions to get them cashed on the beach. The big one represented a machine. The little one a suit. Then I sought out the Amazon, and presented my credentials. For the smaller “billet,” I got a suit with a towel rolled up inside it. The other was exchanged for a fresh ticket, marked No. 5.

“You will have the fifth chance,” said the Amazon, so I attached myself to her at once. As the machines became vacant, she called out the name of the next number loud enough to be heard by the whole crowd, for there were many bathers, and the edge of the water was alive.

“Nu—m—ber two!” she cried, pronouncing the numeral short and sharp. Not there! You must look sharp, or lose your turn. Num—ber three! like-wise out of the way. Num—ber four!”

An elegant lady, with a servant following her, and a long train of muslin, too, responded to the summons, and squeezed herself into the machine, which she must have filled when she got in.

“Num—ber five!”

“Here you are,” says I, and entered the next tent to my grand lady’s.

When I stepped out, in a short suit of mauve check, I saw Madame also emerge, seriously thinned. I never felt more odd and incongruous in my life. There were knots of well-dressed, fashionable people, through whom I had to pass before I reached the water. It was like escaping from a fire at night—only it was broad day—but the oddest thing was that nobody noticed me.

The scene in the water was most absurd, whole families were bathing together in a circle, hand in hand. Where I went in, Mr. and Mrs. Briggs, just their figures, and all the little Briggses, were crowing and splashing in a shallow. Now and then, you could see friends meet, and acquaintances bow; a young lady who thus met some partner at the last ball, making a fashionable sweep in the water. Sometimes a party of young men would come down together, full rim, and dash in like mermen, who had been confined in the town, tumbling head over heels, and otherwise throwing themselves into the arms of the sea.

The tide advanced so much while I was in the water that the machines were all drawn off the beach on to the paved road beneath the walls of the town before I came out. It was a spring-tide, which rises very high here. The result, however, was most grotesque when the dripping bathers emerged, and in several cases could not find their machines again for some time, wandering about in the crowd, sticky and cross. Mine was high and dry on the pavement. It was something like bathing in the Thames, and coming out to dress inside a cab in the Strand. However, I was more fortunate than several, for my wife had followed the machine, and showed me where it was.

The inconvenience of grit, from walking across the sand, is, as I said, removed by a little tub of water—cold or hot—for which last you pay a sou, or halfpenny, extra. I do not know, however, what Robinson Crusoe would have said to the beach, when he was so much astonished at the print of one naked foot. The place was dimpled with toe-holes.

When I had recovered from the novelty of the thing—from seeing ladies of all builds, from Mrs. Gamp to Ophelia, paddling down in scanty Bloomers, without shoes or stockings—when I felt that these gentlemen in check shorts were neither acrobats nor clowns, but sober, steady men of business who bathed on principle (for the liveliest and more sportsmanlike swimmers went to some distance where they could enjoy themselves without encumbrance), I decided in favour of the French fashion over the English. There is nothing indecorous or inconvenient in it. The system is well arranged. The ladies’ dresses must be much more comfortable than the shifts of freize which they wear in our watering-places, and they are more completely dresses. Much care is used to prevent accidents; there is generally a boat some short distance off where the water begins to deepen. Everybody is served in turn, and the greatest pains are taken by the attendants to make the bathers comfortable. By dressing in machines which are drawn up the disagreeable access to them by plank is avoided, and the toilette is never spoilt by a wave bursting the door open and floating out your shoes. This dressing on shore, too, enables servants to come and assist their mistresses more easily. The machines are comfortable and roomy; there is a hanging-place for your watch, a pincushion and looking-glass beside abundance of pegs; moreover, being of canvas, you do not knock the skin off your knuckles when flourishing about with the towel. You may depend upon it that—much, as I confess, Mr, and Mrs. Mayor astonished me when I first went down to the beach at St. Malo—the French method of sea-bathing, as practised in public, is far preferable to that which is common in England.

Harry Jones.