"A Mountain Town in France" by Robert Louis Stevenson

16 mins read

Editor’s note:  The following is extracted from Essays of Travel, by Robert Louis Stevenson (published 1905).  All spelling in the original.
Le Monastier is the chief place of a hilly canton in Haute Loire, the ancient Velay.  As the name betokens, the town is of monastic origin; and it still contains a towered bulk of monastery and a church of some architectural pretensions, the seat of an arch-priest and several vicars.  It stands on the side of hill above the river Gazeille, about fifteen miles from Le Puy, up a steep road where the wolves sometime pursue the diligence in winter.  The road, which is bound for Vivarais, passes through the town from end to end in a single narrow street; there you may see the fountain where women fill their pitchers; there also some old houses with carved doors and pediment and ornamental work in iron.  For Monastier, like Maybole in Ayrshire, was a sort of country capital, where the local aristocracy had their town mansions for the winter; and there is a certain baron still alive and, I am told, extremely penitent, who found means to ruin himself by high living in this village on the hills.  He certainly has claims to be considered the most remarkable spendthrift on record.  How he set about it, in a place where there are no luxuries for sale, and where the board at the best inn comes to little more than a shilling a day, is a problem for the wise.  His son, ruined as the family was, went as far as Paris to sow his wild oats; and so the cases of father and son mark an epoch in the history of centralisation in France.  Not until the latter had got into the train was the work of Richelieu complete.
It is a people of lace-makers.  The women sit in the streets by groups of five or six; and the noise of the bobbins is audible from one group to another.  Now and then you will hear one woman clattering off prayers for the edification of the others at their work.  They wear gaudy shawls, white caps with a gay ribbon about the head, and sometimes a black felt brigand hat above the cap; and so they give the street colour and brightness and a foreign air.  A while ago, when England largely supplied herself from this district with the lace called torchon, it was not unusual to earn five francs a day; and five francs in Monastier is worth a pound in London.  Now, from a change in the market, it takes a clever and industrious work-woman to earn from three to four in the week, or less than an eighth of what she made easily a few years ago.  The tide of prosperity came and went, as with our northern pitmen, and left nobody the richer.  The women bravely squandered their gains, kept the men in idleness, and gave themselves up, as I was told, to sweethearting and a merry life.  From week’s end to week’s end it was one continuous gala in Monastier; people spent the day in the wine-shops, and the drum or the bagpipes led on the bourrées up to ten at night.  Now these dancing days are over.  ‘Il n’y a plus de jeunesse,’ said Victor the garçon.  I hear of no great advance in what are thought the essentials of morality; but the bourrée, with its rambling, sweet, interminable music, and alert and rustic figures, has fallen into disuse, and is mostly remembered as a custom of the past.  Only on the occasion of the fair shall you hear a drum discreetly in a wine-shop or perhaps one of the company singing the measure while the others dance.  I am sorry at the change, and marvel once more at the complicated scheme of things upon this earth, and how a turn of fashion in England can silence so much mountain merriment in France.  The lace-makers themselves have not entirely forgiven our country-women; and I think they take a special pleasure in the legend of the northern quarter of the town, called L’Anglade, because there the English free-lances were arrested and driven back by the potency of a little Virgin Mary on the wall.

From time to time a market is held, and the town has a season of revival; cattle and pigs are stabled in the streets; and pickpockets have been known to come all the way from Lyons for the occasion.  Every Sunday the country folk throng in with daylight to buy apples, to attend mass, and to visit one of the wine-shops, of which there are no fewer than fifty in this little town.  Sunday wear for the men is a green tailcoat of some coarse sort of drugget, and usually a complete suit to match.  I have never set eyes on such degrading raiment.  Here it clings, there bulges; and the human body, with its agreeable and lively lines, is turned into a mockery and laughing-stock.  Another piece of Sunday business with the peasants is to take their ailments to the chemist for advice.  It is as much a matter for Sunday as church-going.  I have seen a woman who had been unable to speak since the Monday before, wheezing, catching her breath, endlessly and painfully coughing; and yet she had waited upwards of a hundred hours before coming to seek help, and had the week been twice as long, she would have waited still.  There was a canonical day for consultation; such was the ancestral habit, to which a respectable lady must study to conform.
Two conveyances go daily to Le Puy, but they rival each other in polite concessions rather than in speed.  Each will wait an hour or two hours cheerfully while an old lady does her marketing or a gentleman finishes the papers in a café.  The Courrier (such is the name of one) should leave Le Puy by two in the afternoon and arrive at Monastier in good on the return voyage, and arrive at Monastier in good time for a six-o’clock dinner.  But the driver dares not disoblige his customers.  He will postpone his departure again and again, hour after hour; and I have known the sun to go down on his delay.  These purely personal favours, this consideration of men’s fancies, rather than the hands of a mechanical clock, as marking the advance of the abstraction, time, makes a more humorous business of stage-coaching than we are used to see it.

As far as the eye can reach, one swelling line of hill top rises and falls behind another; and if you climb an eminence, it is only to see new and father ranges behind these.  Many little rivers run from all sides in cliffy valleys; and one of them, a few miles from Monastier, bears the great name of Loire.  The mean level of the country is a little more than three thousand feet above the sea, which makes the atmosphere proportionally brisk and wholesome.  There is little timber except pines, and the greater part of the country lies in moorland pasture.  The country is wild and tumbled rather than commanding; an upland rather than a mountain district; and the most striking as well as the most agreeable scenery lies low beside the rivers.  There, indeed, you will find many corners that take the fancy; such as made the English noble choose his grave by a Swiss streamlet, where nature is at her freshest, and looks as young as on the seventh morning.  Such a place is the course of the Gazeille, where it waters the common of Monastier and thence downwards till it joins the Loire; a place to hear birds singing; a place for lovers to frequent.  The name of the river was perhaps suggested by the sound of its passage over the stones; for it is a great warbler, and at night, after I was in bed at Monastier, I could hear it go singing down the valley till I fell asleep.

On the whole, this is a Scottish landscape, although not so noble as the best in Scotland; and by an odd coincidence, the population is, in its way, as Scottish as the country.  They have abrupt, uncouth, Fifeshire manners, and accost you, as if you were trespassing, an ‘Où’st-ce que vous allez?’ only translatable into the Lowland ‘Whaur ye gaun?’  They keep the Scottish Sabbath.  There is no labour done on that day but to drive in and out the various pigs and sheep and cattle that make so pleasant a tinkling in the meadows.  The lace-makers have disappeared from the street.  Not to attend mass would involve social degradation; and you may find people reading Sunday books, in particular a sort of Catholic Monthly Visitor on the doings of Our Lady of Lourdes.  I remember one Sunday, when I was walking in the country, that I fell on a hamlet and found all the inhabitants, from the patriarch to the baby, gathered in the shadow of a gable at prayer.  One strapping lass stood with her back to the wall and did the solo part, the rest chiming in devoutly.  Not far off, a lad lay flat on his face asleep among some straw, to represent the worldly element.
Again, this people is eager to proselytise; and the postmaster’s daughter used to argue with me by the half-hour about my heresy, until she grew quite flushed.  I have heard the reverse process going on between a Scotswoman and a French girl; and the arguments in the two cases were identical.  Each apostle based her claim on the superior virtue and attainments of her clergy, and clenched the business with a threat of hell-fire.  ‘Pas bong prêtres ici,’ said the Presbyterian, ‘bong prêtres en Ecosse.’  And the postmaster’s daughter, taking up the same weapon, plied me, so to speak, with the butt of it instead of the bayonet.  We are a hopeful race, it seems, and easily persuaded for our good.  One cheerful circumstance I note in these guerilla missions, that each side relies on hell, and Protestant and Catholic alike address themselves to a supposed misgiving in their adversary’s heart.  And I call it cheerful, for faith is a more supporting quality than imagination.

Here, as in Scotland, many peasant families boast a son in holy orders.  And here also, the young men have a tendency to emigrate.  It is certainly not poverty that drives them to the great cities or across the seas, for many peasant families, I was told, have a fortune of at least 40,000 francs.  The lads go forth pricked with the spirit of adventure and the desire to rise in life, and leave their homespun elders grumbling and wondering over the event.  Once, at a village called Laussonne, I met one of these disappointed parents: a drake who had fathered a wild swan and seen it take wing and disappear.  The wild swan in question was now an apothecary in Brazil.  He had flown by way of Bordeaux, and first landed in America, bareheaded and barefoot, and with a single halfpenny in his pocket.  And now he was an apothecary!  Such a wonderful thing is an adventurous life!  I thought he might as well have stayed at home; but you never can tell wherein a man’s life consists, nor in what he sets his pleasure: one to drink, another to marry, a third to write scurrilous articles and be repeatedly caned in public, and now this fourth, perhaps, to be an apothecary in Brazil.  As for his old father, he could conceive no reason for the lad’s behaviour.  ‘I had always bread for him,’ he said; ‘he ran away to annoy me.  He loved to annoy me.  He had no gratitude.’  But at heart he was swelling with pride over his travelled offspring, and he produced a letter out of his pocket, where, as he said, it was rotting, a mere lump of paper rags, and waved it gloriously in the air.  ‘This comes from America,’ he cried, ‘six thousand leagues away!’  And the wine-shop audience looked upon it with a certain thrill.
I soon became a popular figure, and was known for miles in the country.  Où’st que vous allez? was changed for me into Quoi, vous rentrez au Monastier and in the town itself every urchin seemed to know my name, although no living creature could pronounce it.  There was one particular group of lace-makers who brought out a chair for me whenever I went by, and detained me from my walk to gossip.  They were filled with curiosity about England, its language, its religion, the dress of the women, and were never weary of seeing the Queen’s head on English postage-stamps, or seeking for French words in English Journals.  The language, in particular, filled them with surprise.
Do they speak patois in England?’  I was once asked; and when I told them not, ‘Ah, then, French?’ said they.
No, no,’ I said, ‘not French.’
Then,’ they concluded, ‘they speak patois.’
You must obviously either speak French or patois.  Talk of the force of logic—here it was in all its weakness.  I gave up the point, but proceeding to give illustrations of my native jargon, I was met with a new mortification.  Of all patois they declared that mine was the most preposterous and the most jocose in sound.  At each new word there was a new explosion of laughter, and some of the younger ones were glad to rise from their chairs and stamp about the street in ecstasy; and I looked on upon their mirth in a faint and slightly disagreeable bewilderment.  ‘Bread,’ which sounds a commonplace, plain-sailing monosyllable in England, was the word that most delighted these good ladies of Monastier; it seemed to them frolicsome and racy, like a page of Pickwick; and they all got it carefully by heart, as a stand-by, I presume, for winter evenings.  I have tried it since then with every sort of accent and inflection, but I seem to lack the sense of humour.
They were of all ages: children at their first web of lace, a stripling girl with a bashful but encouraging play of eyes, solid married women, and grandmothers, some on the top of their age and some falling towards decrepitude.  One and all were pleasant and natural, ready to laugh and ready with a certain quiet solemnity when that was called for by the subject of our talk.  Life, since the fall in wages, had begun to appear to them with a more serious air.  The stripling girl would sometimes laugh at me in a provocative and not unadmiring manner, if I judge aright; and one of the grandmothers, who was my great friend of the party, gave me many a sharp word of judgment on my sketches, my heresy, or even my arguments, and gave them with a wry mouth and a humorous twinkle in her eye that were eminently Scottish.  But the rest used me with a certain reverence, as something come from afar and not entirely human.  Nothing would put them at their ease but the irresistible gaiety of my native tongue.  Between the old lady and myself I think there was a real attachment.  She was never weary of sitting to me for her portrait, in her best cap and brigand hat, and with all her wrinkles tidily composed, and though she never failed to repudiate the result, she would always insist upon another trial.  It was as good as a play to see her sitting in judgment over the last.  ‘No, no,’ she would say, ‘that is not it.  I am old, to be sure, but I am better-looking than that.  We must try again.’  When I was about to leave she bade me good-bye for this life in a somewhat touching manner.  We should not meet again, she said; it was a long farewell, and she was sorry.  But life is so full of crooks, old lady, that who knows?  I have said good-bye to people for greater distances and times, and, please God, I mean to see them yet again.

One thing was notable about these women, from the youngest to the oldest, and with hardly an exception.  In spite of their piety, they could twang off an oath with Sir Toby Belch in person.  There was nothing so high or so low, in heaven or earth or in the human body, but a woman of this neighbourhood would whip out the name of it, fair and square, by way of conversational adornment.  My landlady, who was pretty and young, dressed like a lady and avoided patois like a weakness, commonly addressed her child in the language of a drunken bully.  And of all the swearers that I ever heard, commend me to an old lady in Gondet, a village of the Loire.  I was making a sketch, and her curse was not yet ended when I had finished it and took my departure.  It is true she had a right to be angry; for here was her son, a hulking fellow, visibly the worse for drink before the day was well begun.  But it was strange to hear her unwearying flow of oaths and obscenities, endless like a river, and now and then rising to a passionate shrillness, in the clear and silent air of the morning.  In city slums, the thing might have passed unnoticed; but in a country valley, and from a plain and honest countrywoman, this beastliness of speech surprised the ear.
The Conductor, as he is called, of Roads and Bridges was my principal companion.  He was generally intelligent, and could have spoken more or less falsetto on any of the trite topics; but it was his specially to have a generous taste in eating.  This was what was most indigenous in the man; it was here he was an artist; and I found in his company what I had long suspected, that enthusiasm and special knowledge are the great social qualities, and what they are about, whether white sauce or Shakespeare’s plays, an altogether secondary question.
I used to accompany the Conductor on his professional rounds, and grew to believe myself an expert in the business.  I thought I could make an entry in a stone-breaker’s time-book, or order manure off the wayside with any living engineer in France.  Gondet was one of the places we visited together; and Laussonne, where I met the apothecary’s father, was another.  There, at Laussonne, George Sand spent a day while she was gathering materials for the Marquis de Villemer; and I have spoken with an old man, who was then a child running about the inn kitchen, and who still remembers her with a sort of reverence.  It appears that he spoke French imperfectly; for this reason George Sand chose him for companion, and whenever he let slip a broad and picturesque phrase in patois, she would make him repeat it again and again till it was graven in her memory.  The word for a frog particularly pleased her fancy; and it would be curious to know if she afterwards employed it in her works.  The peasants, who knew nothing of betters and had never so much as heard of local colour, could not explain her chattering with this backward child; and to them she seemed a very homely lady and far from beautiful: the most famous man-killer of the age appealed so little to Velaisian swine-herds!
On my first engineering excursion, which lay up by Crouzials towards Mount Mezenc and the borders of Ardèche, I began an improving acquaintance with the foreman road-mender.  He was in great glee at having me with him, passed me off among his subalterns as the supervising engineer, and insisted on what he called ‘the gallantry’ of paying for my breakfast in a roadside wine-shop.  On the whole, he was a man of great weather-wisdom, some spirits, and a social temper.  But I am afraid he was superstitious.  When he was nine years old, he had seen one night a company of bourgeois et dames qui faisaient la manège avec des chaises, and concluded that he was in the presence of a witches’ Sabbath.  I suppose, but venture with timidity on the suggestion, that this may have been a romantic and nocturnal picnic party.  Again, coming from Pradelles with his brother, they saw a great empty cart drawn by six enormous horses before them on the road.  The driver cried aloud and filled the mountains with the cracking of his whip.  He never seemed to go faster than a walk, yet it was impossible to overtake him; and at length, at the comer of a hill, the whole equipage disappeared bodily into the night.  At the time, people said it was the devil qui s’amusait à faire ca.
I suggested there was nothing more likely, as he must have some amusement.
The foreman said it was odd, but there was less of that sort of thing than formerly.  ‘C’est difficile,’ he added, ‘à expliquer.’
When we were well up on the moors and the Conductor was trying some road-metal with the gauge—
Hark!’ said the foreman, ‘do you hear nothing?’
We listened, and the wind, which was blowing chilly out of the east, brought a faint, tangled jangling to our ears.
It is the flocks of Vivarais,’ said he.
For every summer, the flocks out of all Ardèche are brought up to pasture on these grassy plateaux.
Here and there a little private flock was being tended by a girl, one spinning with a distaff, another seated on a wall and intently making lace.  This last, when we addressed her, leaped up in a panic and put out her arms, like a person swimming, to keep us at a distance, and it was some seconds before we could persuade her of the honesty of our intentions.
The Conductor told me of another herdswoman from whom he had once asked his road while he was yet new to the country, and who fled from him, driving her beasts before her, until he had given up the information in despair.  A tale of old lawlessness may yet be read in these uncouth timidities.

The winter in these uplands is a dangerous and melancholy time.  Houses are snowed up, and way-farers lost in a flurry within hail of their own fireside.  No man ventures abroad without meat and a bottle of wine, which he replenishes at every wine-shop; and even thus equipped he takes the road with terror.  All day the family sits about the fire in a foul and airless hovel, and equally without work or diversion.  The father may carve a rude piece of furniture, but that is all that will be done until the spring sets in again, and along with it the labours of the field.  It is not for nothing that you find a clock in the meanest of these mountain habitations.  A clock and an almanac, you would fancy, were indispensable in such a life . . .

Raised in a home filled with books on Western civilization, P.G. Mantel became a lover of history at an early age. An amateur writer of verse, he makes himself useful as an editor for Men of the West.

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