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- Prose Idylls - 20/37 -

and then, Macadam's metal being as yet unknown, the rains and the wheels of generations sawed it gradually deeper and deeper, till this road-ditch was formed. But it must have taken centuries to do it. Many of these hollow lanes, especially those on flat ground, must be as old or older than the Conquest. In Devonshire I am sure that they are. But there many of them, one suspects, were made not of malice, but of cowardice prepense. Your indigenous Celt was, one fears, a sneaking animal, and liked to keep when he could under cover of banks and hill-sides; while your bold Roman made his raised roads straight over hill and dale, as 'ridge-ways' from which, as from an eagle's eyrie, he could survey the conquered lowlands far and wide. It marks strongly the difference between the two races, that difference between the Roman paved road with its established common way for all passengers, its regular stations and milestones, and the Celtic track-way winding irresolutely along in innumerable ruts, parting to meet again, as if each savage (for they were little better) had taken his own fresh path when he found the next line of ruts too heavy for his cattle. Around the spurs of Dartmoor I have seen many ancient roads, some of them long disused, which could have been hollowed out for no other purpose but that of concealment.

So I go slowly up the hill, till the valley lies beneath me like a long green garden between its two banks of brown moor; and on through a cheerful little green, with red brick cottages scattered all round, each with its large neat garden, and beehives, and pigs and geese, and turf-stack, and clipt yews and hollies before the door, and rosy dark-eyed children, and all the simple healthy comforts of a wild 'heth-cropper's' home. When he can, the good man of the house works at farm labour, or cuts his own turf; and when work is scarce, he cuts copses and makes heath-brooms, and does a little poaching. True, he seldom goes to church, save to be christened, married, or buried: but he equally seldom gets drunk. For church and public stand together two miles off; so that social wants sometimes bring their own compensations with them, and there are two sides to every question.

Hark! A faint, dreary hollo off the moor above. And then another, and another. My friends may trust it; for the clod of these parts delights in the chase like any bare-legged Paddy, and casts away flail and fork wildly, to run, shout, assist, and interfere in all possible ways, out of pure love. The descendant of many generations of broom-squires and deer-stealers, the instinct of sport is strong within him still, though no more of the king's deer are to be shot in the winter turnip-fields, or worse, caught by an apple-baited hook hung from an orchard bough. He now limits his aspirations to hares and pheasants, and too probably once in his life, 'hits the keeper into the river,' and reconsiders himself for a while after over a crank in Winchester gaol. Well, he has his faults; and I have mine. But he is a thorough good fellow nevertheless; quite as good as I: civil, contented, industrious, and often very handsome; and a far shrewder fellow too--owing to his dash of wild forest blood, from gipsy, highwayman; and what not--than his bullet-headed and flaxen- polled cousin, the pure South-Saxon of the Chalk-downs. Dark-haired he is, ruddy, and tall of bone; swaggering in his youth; but when he grows old, a thorough gentleman, reserved, stately, and courteous as a prince. Sixteen years have I lived with him hail fellow well met, and never yet had a rude word or action from him.

With him I have cast in my lot, to live and die, and be buried by his side; and to him I go home contented, to look after his petty interests, cares, sorrows--Petty, truly--seeing that they include the whole primal mysteries of life--Food, raiment, and work to earn them withal; love and marriage, birth and death, right doing and wrong doing, 'Schicksal und eigene Schuld;' and all those commonplaces of humanity which in the eyes of a minute philosopher are most divine, because they are most commonplace--catholic as the sunshine and the rain which come down from the Heavenly Father, alike upon the evil and the good. As for doing fine things, my friend, with you, I have learnt to believe that I am not set to do fine things, simply because I am not able to do them; and as for seeing fine things, with you, I have learnt to see the sight--as well as to try to do the duty--which lies nearest me; and to comfort myself with the fancy that if I make good use of my eyes and brain in this life, I shall see--if it be of any use to me--all the fine things, or perhaps finer still, in the life to come. But if not--what matter? In any life, in any state, however simple or humble, there will be always sufficient to occupy a Minute Philosopher; and if a man be busy, and busy about his duty, what more does he require, for time or for eternity?


The point from which to start, in order best to appreciate the change from ocean to sea, is perhaps Biarritz. The point at which to stop is Cette. And the change is important. Between the two points races are changed, climates are changed, scenery is changed, the very plants under your feet are changed, from a Western to an Eastern type. You pass from the wild Atlantic into the heart of the Roman Empire--from the influences which formed the discoverers of the New World, to those which formed the civilizers of the Old. Gascony, not only in its scenery, but in its very legends, reminds you of Devon and Cornwall; Languedoc of Greece and Palestine.

In the sea, as was to be expected, the change is even more complete. From Biarritz to Cette, you pass from poor Edward Forbes's Atlantic to his Mediterranean centre of creation. In plain English and fact, whether you agree with his theory or not, you pass from the region of respectable whales, herrings, and salmon, to that of tunnies, sciaenas, dorados, and all the gorgons, hydras, and chimaeras dire, which are said to grace the fish-markets of Barcelona or Marseilles.

But to this assertion, as to most concerning nature, there are exceptions. Mediterranean fishes slip out of the Straits of Gibraltar, and up the coast of Portugal, and, once in the Bay of Biscay, find the feeding good and the wind against them, and stay there.

So it befalls, that at worthy M. Gardere's hotel at Biarritz (he has seen service in England, and knows our English ways), you may have at dinner, day after day, salmon, louvine, shad, sardine, dorado, tunny. The first is unknown to the Mediterranean; for Fluellen mistook when he said that there were salmons in Macedon, as well as Monmouth; the louvine is none other than the nasty bass, or sea-perch of the Atlantic; the shad (extinct in these islands, save in the Severn) is a gigantic herring which comes up rivers to spawn; a fish common (with slight differences) to both sides of the North Atlantic; while the sardine, the dorado, and the tunny (whether he be the true tunny or the Alalonga) are Mediterranean fish.

The whale fishery of these shores is long extinct. The Biscayan whale was supposed to be extinct likewise. But like the ibex, and some other animals which man has ceased to hunt, because he fancies that he has killed them all, they seem inclined to reappear. For in 1854 one was washed ashore near St. Jean de Luz, at news whereof Eschricht, the great Danish naturalist, travelled night and day from Copenhagen, and secured the skeleton of the new-old monster.

But during the latter part of the Middle Ages, and on--if I recollect aright--into the seventeenth century, Bayonne, Biarritz, Guettary, and St. Jean de Luz, sent forth their hardy whale-fishers, who slew all the whales of the Biscayan seas, and then crossed the Atlantic, to attack those of the frozen North.

British and American enterprise drove them from the West coast of the Atlantic; and now their descendants are content to stay at home and take the sardine-shoals, and send them in to Bayonne on their daughters' heads.

Pretty enough it was, at least in outward seeming, to meet a party of those fisher-girls, bare-legged, high-kilted, lithe as deer, trotting, at a long loping pace, up the high road toward Bayonne, each with her basket on her head, as she laughed and sang, and tossed her black hair, and flashed her brown eyes, full of life and the enjoyment of life. Pretty enough. And yet who will blame the rail, which now sends her quickly into Bayonne--or even her fish without her; and relieves the fair young maiden from being degraded into a beast of burden?

Handsome folk are these brown Basques. A mysterious people, who dwell alone, and are not counted among the nations; speaking an unique language, and keeping up unique customs, for which the curious must consult M. Michel's interesting book. There may be a cross of English blood among them, too, about Biarritz and Bayonne; English features there are, plainly to be seen. And whether or not, one accepts the story of the country, that Anglets, near by, is an old English colony left by our Black Prince, it is certain that Bayonne Cathedral was built in part by English architects, and carries the royal arms of England; and every school history will tell us how this corner of France was long in our hands, and was indeed English long before it was properly French. Moorish blood there may be, too, here and there, left behind by those who built the little 'atalaya' or fire-beacon, over the old harbour, to correspond, by its smoke column, with a long line of similar beacons down the Spanish coast. The Basques resemble in look the Southern Welsh--quick-eyed, neat in feature, neat in dress, often, both men and women, beautiful. The men wear a flat Scotch cap of some bright colour, and call it 'berretta.' The women tie a gaudy handkerchief round their heads, and compel one corner to stand forward from behind the ear in a triangle, in proportion to the size and stiffness whereof the lady seems to think herself well dressed. But the pretty Basque handkerchief will soon give place to the Parisian bonnet. For every cove among the rocks is now filled with smart bathing-houses, from which, in summer, the gay folk of Paris issue in 'costume de bain,' to float about all day on calabashes--having literally no room for the soles of their feet on land. Then are opened casinos, theatre, shops, which lie closed all the winter. Then do the Basque house- owners flee into the moors, and camp out (it is said) on the hills all night, letting their rooms for ten francs a night as mere bed- chambers--for all eating and living is performed in public; while the dove-coloured oxen, with brown holland pinafores over their backs, who dawdle in pairs up and down the long street with their light carts, have to make way for wondrous equipages from the Bois de Boulogne.

Not then, for the wise man, is Biarritz a place to see and to love: but in the winter, when a little knot of quiet pleasant English hold the place against all comers, and wander, undisturbed by fashion, about the quaint little rocks and caves and natural bridges--and watch tumbling into the sea, before the Biscayan surges, the trim walks and summer-houses, which were erected by the municipality in honour of the Empress and her suite. Yearly they tumble in, and yearly are renewed, as the soft greensand strata are graven away, and what must have been once a long promontory becomes a group of fantastic pierced rocks, exactly like those which are immortalized upon the willow-pattern plates.

Owing to this rapid destruction, the rocks of Biarritz are very

Prose Idylls - 20/37

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