Duncan Campbell Scott

Addresses‚ Essays‚ and Reviews




Dieppe

 

Arrival

 

     The French coast was veiled in a haze. Straight ahead through this soft medium could be seen the chalk cliffs of Normandie, shining with a pallid green lustre, the gash in the champagne through which flowed the Arque, the grey cold mass of the town, and upon the crest of the cliff the lighthouse and the mast with the signal-flags standing in the wind. On either hand the haze blotted the coast and we were fronted by the limited view of a harbour with waves washing past the pier-head; a picture framed in a vast grey. The steamer broke out her flags, for several minutes stopped her engines and lurched up and down in the long seas, then heading for the space between the piers she swept into quiet water.
     Upon the right and left looked down the Christ from two enormous crucifixes set there for a perpetual sign of prayer for protection or safe return, of intercession or thanksgiving. Then she threaded her way into the first of the many basins that form the harbor and we gained the only view of Dieppe that is known to the hasty traveller to Paris, a view of a cheerless station and customs office, and, if he may take his mind from his baggage, a long crescent of grey buildings beyond a fish market, fronted by the pools of the harbor, the foreground of the little valley of the Arque filled with masts of vessels and the road that climbs past the homes of “Little Paris” to the cliff level.
     Your first encounter with a native of Dieppe may be with a porter in a suit of blue and white striped jeans, girthed by a wide leather belt, who may demand one franc for wheeling your trunk twenty yards. When you compel him with firmness to receive fifty [page 289] centimes, he may advise your cocher to take it out of your hide when he has the chance, that you are a beast of an Englishman or a rude American, and deserve to be fleeced by all good citizens of Dieppe. But your cocher has learned another lesson and is ecstatic in his reception of his proper fare and pour boire, remembering that the opportunity of the porter was single, but that his own may be multitudinous: Monsieur is to stay a few days in Dieppe, well! see what a good strong horse! and a comfortable fiacre, nothing would bring him greater honour than to drive Monsieur to see the sights of Dieppe. A card is proffered with a grand flourish, and the incident may close.

 

A Hostelry

 

Fortunate for you if it closes at the gateway of the Hotel de le Paix. Far away from you, at least a century in the future, stand the huge hotels fronting the sea, with their elevators, electric lights and all their display of modern comfort. You may, if you choose, imagine yourself a contemporary of Laurence Sterne, bent upon an unsentimental journey. Just embarked from the New Haven packet and beginning at once to notice the differences, which occupation serves the traveller as one of his chief pleasures.
     You may sit in the court of the Hotel de le Paix with a cup of coffee or a glass of any one of the unknown delectable drinks which the café provides, under a vine that has sheltered many generations, a little fountain before you playing over a basin of gold fish, and lazily watch the life of Dieppe go by in the street beyond the entrance. The sun is warm in the ’Grande Rue’ but it creeps along the top stories of the court and leaves you in shadow and coolness. The only point of brightness is the copper water tank and basin against the wall; they glow with a rich, deep brightness. The only sound within the court is the occasional jangle of a bell. It hangs one of a group above the entrance in the open air, protected from the rain by a little pent house; if they were ever numbered the numbers have long ago disappeared, but Lucie the old fille de chambre and Nicolette, the young one, know them by heart, a glance shows which one is bobbing on its spring. [page 290]

 

Street Scenes

 

But, without, there is just sufficient noise and movement to retain your attention not in the rude manner that demands a constant straining to keep the mind on a stream of traffic rapid and turbulent. It is a succession of pictures which compose themselves naturally; one the complement of the other, each succeeding each, until the sequence is broken by the intrusion of a group of American or English tourists, who are as alien to the scene in garb and manner as a Dieppe fish-wife and her dog pulling at their cart loaded with bright, strange fish, would be upon King Street, Toronto.
     First the pupils of an orphanage, girls and boys separately, diminishing in size so gradually, couple by couple, that they appeal to one as having been selected to demonstrate the fact, the girls in blue, with discreet white aprons, the boys in brown, the guardian nuns in beautiful clear grey with enormous white head coverings that flap in two points like the wings of a sea gull.
     Then a train of five black horses, nonchalant with reserve strength, trundling a huge cart with two wheels. Their shoulders are enlarged by shaggy sheep-skins dyed indigo which make them look like buffalos, along comes the driver in a blue blouse. He sounds his whip lash incessantly, it cracks like a pistol shot.
     Then a lad shouldering a large can covered with gay pictures which have a magic power over the children that follow him. The can is filled with licorice-water and he bawls as he goes.
     Then the street is invaded, one can use no other word, by a band of townspeople and peasants that overflow the pavements and walk upon the cobble stones with an air of familiarity with time and place, and yet with an air of curiosity, also, as if for the first time they were promenading the streets of a new wonder-town.
     They go hand-in-hand enjoying at once comradeship or kinship, and the simple pleasure of the hour, a fine day, good company, health and a friendly street. They gaze with an innocent stare at shop windows, at the genteel customers of the cafés occupying the whole sidewalk with their little tables; they part to accommodate a fiacre or a wood cart and flow together again around some object that claims their attention. Whatever it is it becomes the very heart of a new interest, there is much laughter, those at first upon the outside take their turn at the centre, those at first at the centre wear pleased faces upon the outside, there is the sound of kissing and [page 291] exclamations of endearment and out rolls a baby carriage with two negro babies! The attention which a negro wins in France by reason of his black skin must be a sort of poetic justice for the indignities heaped upon his fellow elsewhere. These two babies were rolled through an amused and delighted street and stopped at every corner for kisses and terms of admiration and endearment.

 

Market Day

 

It is market day, and from end to end of the Grand Rue are the peasants with their farm and garden produce. They occupy the shady side of the street, and with their baskets, bags, stools, trays, implements of barter and exchange, they stop the way for all but the buyers or idlers on foot. There goes up a prodigious clatter of tongues while the good housewives of Dieppe bargain and chaffer.
     For each party this is the delight of the day, hardly is it to buy and sell, rather on the one side to ask more than you hope to receive, and on the other to offer less than you expect to give. A transaction is satisfactory only as it approaches the trade price by degrees, each one of which has its nice differences of debate. The only unhappy bonne femme in the long and clacking row is the one who had the misfortune to sell her whole load of carrots, to an English jockey, at one fell purchase! No matter that she had a pocket full of silver, her carrots, material for a few happy hours of trafficking, had disappeared: her occupation was gone, she could only go home with a feeling that her good luck somehow was ill.
     At the end of the day the narrow street is strewn with the débris of trade, the broken leaves of vegetables, torn pieces of paper, splinters of boxes, fragments of fruit. But the morrow is the Sabbath, and just after dawn two bright carts drawn by sturdy Normandy horses roll into the street. The two women scrub the street from end to end with the same care as they would their kitchen floors. One cart and attendant takes what the other overlooks. Their sabots, wheels and metal shoes fill the early morning with a gentle sound of diligence. When they have freshened the Grande Rue, and tidied it, the people may go to mass. [page 292]

 

Ivory

 

Carved ivory is the famous product of Dieppe. To really carry away the blessing of the town one must have concealed somewhere in his baggage a piece of ivory, carved with more or less elaborate, but with uniform skill. Not few are the workshops where one can see the men bending over their benches fashioning and smoothing, but each will tell you that only there in all Dieppe can you get the genuine work that has made the name and fame of the town, only there has the tradition been preserved and honoured. But to the observer there is no difference in quality, and the sole cause for wonderment is the constant excellence of the work. By the carver’s side still lies the faded, half opened rose, whose petals he has succeeded in transferring to the creamy ivory, so crisp, they look as if the dew was still at the root of every leaf. In the shop you can buy anything you wish, in ivory, from an egg spoon at “a franc fifty” to a wonderful jewel box, at two hundred francs, carved with an intricate design, the lid painted with a copy of a Boucher figure piece.

 

The Casino

 

In great contrast to the old part of the town is the Casino, the institution which conserves and carefully guards pleasure, whose purpose it is to make sure that you have a particularly good time, be amused, in fact, and escape ennui. Over it stands the ancient Chateau, an architectural contradiction, pleasure there must have been within those walls, but it had been fought for and was protected by men-at-arms, and dwelt behind gratings. The Casino is open to the sun and the password is the gleam of silver. You approach it through the one surviving gap of the old fortifications. Upon one side of the gate lies the place Camille Saint-Saëns, a clean, bright paved square called after the great musician who was born in Dieppe. Upon the other opens the gravelled spaces in front to the casino and beyond them the low facade of the buildings with their moorish cupolas and ornaments. Beyond that is the sea-wall and the long promenade fronting the channel.
     What is the casino? It contains everything that the French can devise to make a dull heart gay and light heart gayer! A concert hall and theatre, a ball room, gaming tables, refreshment rooms, bathing [page 293] houses, sun parlours, canvas shelters fronting the sea, wheeled chairs, and countless little comforts for the idler or convalescent. In the concert hall you may hear the best European artists, in the theatre those youthful actors who are as good as the best, though unencumbered, as yet, by reputation. Every night you may dance to your heart’s content. Every night you may waste your gold at the green tables where Les Petits Chevaux rule the destinies of the pocket.
     The magnificent director summons the little horses into line with a masterful gesture, with a turn or two of the crank he sweeps them swiftly around the circle. “Fait votre jeu, Messieurs, Mesdames, fait votre jeu,” he cries sharply. Down goes a shower of silver on the spaces of the green baize table. Another turn of the crank accelerates them. “On ne prent plus. C’est fini!” he cries, after that no coin can fall on the table. Every body stretches his neck to see which horse stops at the winning post. “Sept,” cries the voice of fate. The croupier pushes the silver to the winners and rakes in what belongs to the bank. “Fait votre jeu, Messieurs,” comes the cry; until morning the game goes on.
     The beach of the casino is as rough as the rest of this coast, no amount of work could ever smooth these mounds of stones and gravel abraded by years of rolling in the tides and breakers. The bather straps on sandals, or shoes with thick soles and walks unscathed over the pebbles. Out in deep water, at varying lengths from the shore, lie boats from which the daring swimmer may dive, and a couple of boatmen patrol the whole extent of the beach, guarding the safety of the bathers.
     Near shore the water is clouded with chalk sediment, a mile out it sparkles with a million leaping ripples, gold upon blue. In the forewater a gay steam yacht flashes light off her brasses, and flutters with flags and pennons. On the verge of sight an oceanliner rolls a long rope of smoke down her wake. These and the laughing, lounging bathers front the row of little canvas shelters where the ladies, too fine to be handled by the rough waves, take the air. In the prettiest gowns they do as they please, which is the goal of all effort toward comfort in France.
     The whole sea front is divided into compartments by fences of thick timber, which prevent dangerous currents and keep the pebbles from roving: and above the compartments, overlooking the channel, is the promenade, a mile long, stretching from the casino to the harbour-entrance, from the casino to the crucifix towering [page 294] over pier and sea. This promenade, the beach outside the enclosures of the casino, and a rival bathing establishment, are open to the public. Anyone may bathe who wears a decent dress.
     It is said that the English take their recreation sadly, and one expects to find in France the antithesis of this gloomy pleasure. But one does not see much of the expected gaiety; the people give one the impression of settled content, they seem possessed of the knowledge of what they want, and of how to get it. But sometimes one sees in France groups of pleasure seekers that fill one with a great sadness. Upon a certain day I saw a French girl having a dip in the sea. The whole family came to witness this function. They were clothed in dark colours; the father was even clad in black, and had a huge coarse black umbrella over his head. The bathing maid emerged from a waterproof, and her bathing dress was sombre and voluminous. Her feet were bare and she wore no sandals. The whole family encouraged her gravely, and she approached the sea slowly and with great pain. There was a moment of silence and expectancy when she met the waves. She wet her feet and the deed was consummated! Everyone concerned seemed satisfied, they received her again from the sea with flat decorum; they formed a ring about her while she put on her shoes. It was a sad and enervating sight.

 

Bread

 

In Dieppe and elsewhere in France the bread shops are most attractive and conspicuous whether one leans upon the staff of life or not. If one does, these shops and their contents are gems strung upon the streets. Loaves! Loaves of all shapes, sizes, length and thicknesses. Loaves of all colours, textures and degrees of crustiness! Loaves of all materials, of all grades, of every conceivable mixture! Surely this French bread has had its apotheosis! Has not one of their own poets mixed a sonnet in its praise? Has not someone of the multitude of their sculptors raised a statue for its immortalizing? True my last question was answered affirmatively, in miniature, as it were, when I found in Paris, under the shadow of the Tour St. Jacques Coutan’s statue of the bread-carrier. How bravely the debonnair little figure trudges along with her apron full of loaves, and one shaped like a wreath of immortelles held like a decoration over [page 295] the whole load. It was better than no treatment of the subject, and in itself it was worthy, but where is the heroic statue that will celebrate the estate of BREAD in the economy of the French nation; that will give artistic form to the plain fact that the happiness of the French peasant springs from the sane and innocent enjoyment of simple pleasures.

 

“Little Paris” and the Eastern Cliff

 

It was a windy day when we crossed the harbour in a ferry boat that was merely a fishing smack off duty, to visit the eastern point of the town, the houses of “Little Paris” and the caves of the people who live in the cliff. You can approach this district by a number of bridges over various channels connecting the points, or basins of the harbor, but the scramble down the stone steps covered with sea slime and weeds and shells, laid bare by the ebbing tide, and a journey of a hundred yards in the smack, seemed the most inviting. When we arrived there was nothing in particular to see, which is often the case, but as it frequently happens, the charm of a walk comes by the way, and one is conscious of pleasure by an absence of its acute forms. Here turning away from the town one sees only the white cliffs, straight as if split with a chisel, a little bay with a stoney shore, full of débris that the waves wash to and fro, the air above it filled with sweeping gulls, the solid pier stretching into the ocean. The pier was dotted with fishermen plying the water with scoop nets, and so far as we could see, catching nothing. By their sides were little tubs filled with shell fish pounded into a gritty paste. A score of times we watched them carry out these movements; first the net would go down, then they would sow upon the water a handful of this crushed bait to attract the fish, then they would raise the net, wearily, again and again, and little seemed to come of it. One man had a few fish in a pail. They had toiled there since early morning, images of patience in action.
     In the cliff there were, here and there, fissures which had been widened and excavated so as to form chambers or caverns in the chalk. These wide openings were, in some cases, filled in with boards—the front thus formed being paired with a small door. In others the cave was open to the winds. The ascent to these doored excavations was protected by railings and a landing, and in one [page 296] doorway hung a bird cage and a captive linnet. But the others had merely a rough causeway of débris for an approach, and no ornament save a line of grimy linen. So that, here among these cliff dwellers there must have been the social distinctions which agitate the great world beyond the chalk cliffs.
     The lady of the handrail and the linnet was the ferryman’s lady who was working through metamorphosis to the ownership of a fishing smack. The lady of the heap of rubbish and the open cave was the lady of the poor fisherman who had fished all day and caught nothing. Inside the darkness of the caves there was the measure of difference accurately laid down in the form of little comforts. The linnet at the door prefigured a four-poster and a bunk for the children, and walls that were of a comparative cleanliness, the open cavity set forth what was within, a litter upon the floor for a bed, the floor itself deep with various dirt, the walls creeping with many things that have proper names.
     “So that my brats shall not play with thy brats and soon I shall take my linnet and cage and live under tiles, while Jean, my bonhomme, sets his brown sail and goes down to sea with the rest of the fleet, and comes back with the fish whose scales turn into silver.”
     As for the houses of “Little Paris,” how shall we describe them? There was a group of three standing together, huddled as three sots might lean upon one another for mutual uprightness, the result being a general sagging and wavering, with an ultimate crash not far distant. Certainly they had no hint of Paris about them as Paris is thought [of in] the eyes of the novelist; Paris so light and clean and various and airy, what have these houses with their haggish aspect, made up of old timbers, supporting older stone, to do with thee?
     The answer came out of the stones themselves. They belonged to old Paris, a vestige of that town when she was yet the seat of learning for the continent. They were a refrain from a ballade of Villon’s, or a paragraph of Rabelais. The dormers on the roof drooped like the eyelids of an old lecher; the whole house windows, doors, gargoyles, chimney-pots, conduits, gratings, seemed alive with troops of beings that took the forms of their age and station, men-at-arms, bravos, monks, valets, nobles in disguise, adventurers, cut-throats, light girls, gypsies, quacks, players, ballade makers, Jews, fine ladies, pages and nuns; a rout of medieval spectres charged into the air with the bustle and bravado of a lusty and lawless time. [page 297]
      The old houses shook with the obese laughter of jolly fellows of the moyen age. “Ho, ho, ho, you paltry twentieth century fellow afraid to cut a throat, or take a purse, afraid of your own shadow, deferring one to the other, restless with your annihilations of distance and time, too hurried to live, boastful and cowardly. Ho, ho, ho, see my merry boys, my children, my dear fellows, that were men of their hands, and masters of themselves, hard in the loins, big breasted, fearless lovers, hot blooded in act and repose. Men and women, Ho, ho, ho.” Thus spake the houses of “Little Paris.” [page 298]

 

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