Returning to Cherbourg from Guernsey, it might have seemed that there was nothing to do but go on to Paris, with possibly a stop at Caen or Beauvais; although it is seldom that the tourist stops even there, as his steamer train takes him on a stop less run and Cherbourg itself is but a landing or sailing point. And, so far as Cherbourg itself is concerned, there is little to interest the sightseer, unless he cares to become acquainted with life in an important provincial city. For myself, I came to like the people there, and the shops; I found a pleasure in such signs as “Perruquier” and “Chapeaux et Casquettes”; and in a peninsula whose greatest charm is in its reminders of England, it really pleased me to find a reminder of America-only with a difference!-for a smiling citizen, asking me for the time, explained, not that he had “left his watch with his uncle,” but “J’ai porte ma montre chez ma tante.”
That their ways and customs and frugalities are different from ours is a never-ending charm. One day, as I was looking out over the harbor at a great liner that had just steamed stately in, I noticed that into the water, from a point quite near me, there drove a little cart, crowded with big tin cans, and that these the driver proceeded to fill with sea-water, and, having done so, drove leisurely back to shore.
I wondered. It was the waterfront of a city: a land-locked, breakwater-locked bay; the water was assuredly not clean; but it was evident that I was not looking at a case of mere lacteal dilution; the fact that salt was in the water and publicity in the view shut out the supposition of its being a Frenchman’s milky way; and so I made query as to what it really was.
“Oh, that is only a baker’s cart,” was the indifferent reply, familiarity having taken off the edge of possible surprise or disapprobation.
“And do other bakers do the same?” “Yes, indeed.”
Salt is very dear in France, being an important source of governmental revenue, and so bakers carry sea-water to their bakeries for the sake of the profit in thus getting salt for nothing.
And there are customs more romantic, just as interesting, and less utilitarian. When, one even ing, I met a veritable Rembrandt picture on a lonely street, a Night Watch, with ten or a dozen soldiers, some armed with guns, and the others like policemen, hand-free for the easy seizure of offenders, T felt that even in Cherbourg one may step back into the ways of the distant past, and especially did I feel this when told that this military Watch patrols the streets till daylight, in supplement to the activities of the few real policemen of the town.
But in the country round Cherbourg I found a greater and keener pleasure. I knew that from the peninsula of the Cotentin, on which Cherbourg is situated, came many of the best of the soldiers of William the Conqueror, and when I also learned that there were in that neighborhood numerous little ancient places still bearing names made famous in English history or inseparably associated with English life I set about discovering some of them. And it was a fascinating quest. Humble places, too, all of them, and this added to the interest. Cherbourg itself, the only important place of the Cotentin, figured in the Conquest with a Count of Cherbourg, but, unlike many of the humbler men, he left no mark on English history, although the name itself, of Cherbourg, is understood to be perpetuated in the English Scarborough.
In merely going along the roads of this region there is fascination, for over these very roads many of the conquerors of England used to walk or ride, so many centuries ago; and upon this water they used to sail, those men-not the “English” Channel, but merely La Manche, “the” Channel; for in repudiating the arrogance of “English” there had not been ,hown the opposing arrogance of “French.”
I have seen, from the Norman shore, the Channel all a level stretch of glorious greens and blues, with the blue sky overhead and the white forts looking out over the water; I have seen it roaring tumultuously against the rocks and dashing up great clouds of spray; I have seen a fleet of French warships there and heard the bugle calls come over the water; and always I have thought that this is the sea upon which William the Conqueror looked, this the sea across which he sailed with his many thousands of men, and his vast number of little boats, and his own particular ship, Spanish-named the Mora; though why a man so intensely Norman in spirit and so watchful of signs and omens should have chosen a Spanish name for the flagship of his expedition is most curious. I have thought that upon these rocks the wives and children of the men of the Cotentin stood to see the men sail away to the gathering place for the English expedition, and have wondered what they thought. And what they certainly did not think was that humble names of the Cotentin should come to mighty prominence in the unknown land; that their local names should become common family cognomens of England.
From the Cotentin went Percys and Grevilles, here were Devereux, Tankervil, Talbot, Mortimer, here were Kirk and Fleming and Mowbray, Neville and Pierrepont and Hay, here was Vernon, here were Bedfords, here was Vere, here were St. John and St. Clair (no wonder they are still pronounced, in England, Sinjen and Sinkler!), here were Beaumonts and Montagues, and from here went the Bruce.
It is fascinating to find, too, that in the Cotentin there are both a Tessy and an Urberville, and that a Hardy (Hardi) figured prominently in one of the early French battles of the great Conqueror. And I have met a Tess, looking as she is described in the novel, and driving, as Tess drove, in a highwheeled cart in the dim light of just before the sunrise.
To learn and see what I wished to learn and see, to seek out the places of origin of some of the Norman-English names, I did not rely upon the railroad. First of all, I aimed to go to the very point of the peninsula; still called, by the French themselves, the loneliest and least frequented part of all France! And I found that the best way to get there was by diligence. Now, by far the greater number of Americans never imagine that the diligence, for practical travel in Europe, still exists; but in quite a number of places I have found, in seeking out the particularly picturesque, that the local diligence may be a most convenient aid.
And so I took a dingy diminutive diligence, early one morning, out from Cherbourg. It was a raw and chilly morning, and there was a drizzly rain, and it was very, very early. In fact, travel in Normandy is apt to be travail! Local trains come in before dawn, and the passengers, after having sat and jerkily dozed for hours in uncomfortably small compartments, may have to continue their journey in an uncomfortably small diligence.
The one that I took in beginning my expedition of discovery was certainly of small enough dimensions to be uncomfortable, for it was so low that one had to stoop, and so narrow that knees were an incubus, and there was such an absence of ventilation as almost to put me out beside the driver in spite of the chilling rain. Always, on a diligence, except when there is a rainy reason, I secure the seat beside the driver, to have fresh air, and to see the country, and to get information from the man who can tell you so many things you want to know. But this was a day for an exception, and inside I went; and found that my only companions were to be a man of seventy and a shyly pretty girl of seventeen; and with these, the diligence ride, far from being uncomfortable, was a constant pleasure.
The man was simple-hearted and delightful. He spoke to me courteously as a stranger. Then his face became aglow with communicable news. “The great Lafayette went across the ocean to help America!” he said; and he became almost inarticulate with joy when he realized that I had understood him and when I replied that Lafayette was the friend of Washington; for, peasant though he was, he had heard of Washington. His genial old face beamed as he turned to the girl. “He understands me!” he said, exultantly.
Then he essayed again: “It was, monsieur, a Frenchman who made a great statue for the harbor of America,” he said, and fixed his eyes upon me, eagerly intent, to see if again I comprehended. And when I told him that I had but recently seen the Statue of Liberty, and tried to give him some idea of its appearance, and when, following this, I mentioned that Bartholdi had also made another statue for New York, and that it was the statue of Lafayette, the friend of Washington, he could only look from the girl to myself and myself to the girl with an awed pleasure that it was a delight to behold.
Then he took from his pocket his precious pocketpiece; this, he said, I, his friend from America, must accept from him; and with real dignity he offered it to me: a copper coin of Louis XVI, of 1792, the year of the king’s captivity and the abolition of royalty.
“And this,” said the pretty girl, blushing, “monsieur 1’Americain will surely accept from me as a memento”; and she shyly gave me a silver coin of Napoleon, of the time of the Empire.
It was literally an embarrassment of riches; I certainly did not wish to take their prized pocketpieces, yet they both-they were not father and daughter, but were strangers to each other-insisted that they would be grieved if I did not; “desolated” was the old man’s word.
It was a delightful drive, and none of us minded the stuffy chill of the air, the windows that could not be opened, the slanting rain that drove drearily down; for we talked together, they of Normandy and I of America, with friendly laughter when there was halting or misunderstanding and with patience in picking out meanings; and somehow we learned much of one another’s lives, surroundings and thoughts.
For one of the things that a traveler should early learn is as much of the language of the country he is visiting as possible. But it is still more important that he should realize that with but little knowledge of a language he can, if he have confidence and readiness, make himself understood. No European is ever rude or surprised at a visitor’s limited knowledge of his language. In America foreigners are looked upon as subjects of barely tolerant amusement if they do not pronounce every word correctly, but when Americans go abroad their shortcomings as to language are not in turn viewed critically, and foreigners are quick at understanding. Manage to say half that you mean and they will guess correctly at the other half. Always have with you a dictionary of the language-French, Italian, German, according to the country you are in-a double dictionary, with words in English for one half, and words in the foreign tongue for the other. Then when you come to a halt for a word, turn to the dictionary; or, when your interlocutor cannot give a word that you understand, show the dictionary and have him or her point out the word, and then you will read its English meaning. It is amazing what progress you can make, what a range of subjects you can discuss.
That dripping day, as we rode out toward the end of the peninsula, passing rain-swept villages and gray-misted fields, we learned how much a little friendliness may brighten dull hours, and at Beaumont, with the sun coming out and the clouds breaking away and the rain ceasing, we parted like old friends.
It was at Beaumont that our trip ended; a name sufficiently Anglicized in the course of the centuries, while at the same time it has remained a family name in France. A one-streeted old town of white-shuttered gray houses is Beaumont, with an interesting ancient church, with oddly roundtopped tower, and an inn where the service was delightfully simple and old-fashioned; where a line of candlesticks, remindful that the day of primitive lighting has not yet ended, stood on a shelf in the sitting room for the use of guests setting bedward, and where, in short, as the inn-sign had it, there was “Loge a Pied et a Cheval, ” lodging for foot and horse; this sign pleasantly alternating, in the Cotentin, with “Herbage les Betes de Passage” -although, except for the diligence horses, there are few “beasts of passage” ever seen in this particular corner of the peninsula.
I noticed when my luncheon was served that there were still in use in the inn, along with more modern dishes, some pieces of old-time copper lustre. The landlady did not prize them. They were of English make, did I say? She had not known; she knew only that they were from her mother; and so, at a very moderate cost, I carried away with me the few pieces still unbroken (a sugar-bowl, a jug, a cup and saucer), to add to my china collection at home; for the collector must always be ready to discover what he wishes even in an unexpected place-and must also be watchful against imitation pieces. But one need not fear imitations in regions unvisited even by Frenchmen themselves, and especially when the price is less than that for which imitation pieces are made. And perhaps I should add here, for it is in the line of what the visitor to the unvisited may find, that at other points in the Cotentin I acquired some specimens of another kind of pottery, some bowls of a rare Norman ware in dullish-white and reddishbrown.
Beaumont is in the midst of great bleakness and loneliness, and not far away, and reached by a rough and winding road, leading through a succession of “landes,” as they are termed, is Greville; these landes being stretches of bleak moorland thick-grown with a prickly and yellow-flowered shrub that grows freely in the poor soil and is utilized as fuel by the people and especially by the bakers!-a class, as will be noticed, who have even more than the usual Norman share of thrift.
Most of the Cotentin is of lush richness of soil and growth, with little fields where fat, sleek cattle graze, but this particular section is mostly desolate, and the principal industry is fishing, though even here there are fields where cattle may be seen and where the vachere, the cow-girl, goes with her easy stride with the great brass jug, delectable of shape, perched, full of milk, upon her shoulder; or one may see her, out in the field, milking a cow right into this narrow-necked jug, such being the custom of the country.
Greville not only bears a name that has become well known in England, but has a still greater distinction, in that it was the birthplace of the mighty Millet, the peasant-born painter of peasants. And there is a monument to him here; an unheroic, inartistic figure of a man, sitting gingerly upon a leafy seat as if there were thorns among the leaves.
Out in the middle of a bare field, and then in another and another, I noticed stone posts, and they looked so interesting and old, discolored as they were by the weather of centuries-for everything is remindful of centuries here!-that my mind went at once to possibilities Druidical or Roman. “But no, monsieur; they are for the cattle, they; for the cattle to scratch against; and when they scratch themselves with freedom, monsieur, with an energy, we say that it will rain. And when rain is coming, often the beasts will go to a corner of the field and they will turn their heads away from the direction in which the rain is to come, and we say that the rain will come in from the Manche or that it will be a landward rain.”
Out toward either of the principal points of the peninsula, the Nez de Jobourg or the Cap de la Hague, the bleakness of the landscape increases, and the diminutive fishing hamlets are set in a great bare shore; but the fishing folk, men and women alike, with their curved fish-baskets fastened at their waists, or their fish-hampers standing ready for a trip, are friendly and gossipy and companionable, ready for a smile or a pleasant word, as if in instinctive defense against the dreariness that surrounds them.
One must not always expect to find names spelled in Normandy precisely as they are spelled in England; one must seek for Kirk in Querqueville, for example; but often the names are the same or almost the same. And I shall not describe many places in detail, for over and over it would be but to describe a tiny huddled town or a shapeless ruin. But there comes with particular insistence the pleasant memory of Becquet, a fishing village on the shore not far from Cherbourg.
Thomas a Becket was half Saracen, for his father, a Crusader, had fallen in love with the daughter of the Emir of Palestine, and she had loved him in return. But they were separated, as he thought hopelessly, for she was placed under close restraint, while, as for him, sickness and wounds sent him back to England an unhappy man. But the girl escaped, and set out for England, seeking him, knowing nothing but his first name, Gilbert, and the name of “London”; and she found him!
The fiery-tempered Archbishop of Canterbury was their son; of partial Saxon descent, some have said, but his name was Norman, as was his fierce earnestness. Norman, with Saracen and Saxon mixed-no wonder he ruled England and that his violent death stirred the world for centuries!
So it was with peculiar interest that I went to Becquet; and I was none the less interested that I found it but a few houses, a clustered conglomerate of weather-grayed stone, huddling on the water side where the surf comes rolling magnificently in over rocks and jagged reefs. A protecting wall of huge-blocked stone shelters the harbor, which is just big enough for a few fishing boats, and that some of the huge stones have been tumbled and displaced tells vividly of the storms that come whirling against this coast.
I sat down at a table in front of the fishers’ inn, and found that there, as everywhere in Normandy, the cooking was palatable-a trait the Normans omitted to take to England with the Conqueror!and beside me, at another table, were seated a couple of lovers, as devoted to each other as were the father of Thomas and the Saracen girl, though my couple were but the humblest of fisher folk. Lovers they, although married for probably fifty years!both of them myriad wrinkled, she white-capped and he blue-bloused, he as devoted as a youth, she as affectionate as a girl, and both with the shining eyes of love.
They carried their own luncheon-dry bread and snails-and each grasped firmly in the right hand the working knife that is the Norman peasant’s knife and fork and spoon. And they ordered cognac and coffee, and the woman laughed and put half her cognac into her own coffee and the other half into the coffee of her husband, and their cheerful words, their cheerful happiness, their unfeigned and simple pleasure in each other’s company were good to see. Intently they watched a little girl, a stranger to them, but full of interest none the less-it was long since they had had little children of their own-as she played a solitary little game of hop-scotch with a flat pebble which she skipped through mazes marked upon the ground. Few things are older than the games of childhood, and I did not doubt that little Norman girls played solitary hop-scotch just like this centuries ago.
It was Easter Monday, and the old couple were bent on enjoying the holiday to the utmost. I noticed that they whispered together, he proposing something with the boldness that goes with a mighty suggestion, she shyly protesting, urging doubt, yet with eyes aglow with happiness that her husband should wish to do so great a thing! And I saw that he put aside, with smiling triumph, the remonstrance that could not veil her longing for the treat, and I heard him boldly order it-a flask of white wine; not an expensive treat, as rated by the world; it cost less than a franc; and yet it was clearly such a momentous and unusual thing for them to do with their slender pocketbook.
It was the man who took the responsibility and gave the order, but it was the woman who paid. Indeed, it is the woman who pays-but not in the ancient proverbial sense-throughout Normandy, although at the same time she is apparently and ostensibly the weaker half of creation. For it is the woman who carries the purse.
Women in Normandy are frankly the inferiors, and as frankly accept the position-yet somehow they manage to manage things! They are often railway ticket agents, they are often flagmenflagwomen!-at crossings, and may be seen, with apron clean and hair carefully brushed, proudly holding the flag while the train passes by. Often you will see women driving the market carts; and, following the world-wide tendency, if a woman is alone upon the seat she sits squarely in the middle, instead of, like a man, at one side. Women work in the fields; they help to handle and clean the fish when the boats come in. I have seen women-not a pretty sight-working as street cleaners in Cherbourg in a wet and chilly dawn.
And always the peasant woman carries the purse; when in a shop with her husband, as with the old couple at the inn, it is she who pays-and she who has the last word! The peasant women, the farmer women, look happy, doubtless are happy, in spite of the inferiority of which they have so evidently made essential mastery.
There were ancient words in Normandy, other than names, that are familiar in England, and it was like meeting old friends to come upon some that figure freely in the old-time novels. “Gam mon” is here; although, of course, it is but “jambon”; and the rolling “gramercy” comes readily in recognition of special kindness. I have known a tip of six cents for a trifling service, to fetch it, and once, when a young man specially obliged me and a tip of a franc was his meed, there came such a splendid “Gramercy!” with long-prolonged accent on the first syllable, as could scarcely have been expected had the tip been a Napoleon.
Although the characteristic Norman temperament is one that displays hospitality, and especially, I take it, to Americans, the people do not, as a rule, open their hearts to strangers; I was fortunate in meeting with unusual cordiality, and always, beneath the cordiality, there could be discerned the basic sternness, the aloofness, of an all-conquering race; and also a not infrequent hardness as well as hardiness. On the whole, they suggest fortiter in re rather than the anciently companioned phrase of suaviter in modo!
There is little of dancing, little of music; sheep and cattle are often cruelly hobbled, and the dogs of Normandy are a cowed race, with too many of them chained. Yet it is no contradiction to say, in spite of this, that, on the whole, they are a kindly race; I merely set down that they can be hard as well as kind. And as to hardiness, no further proof is needed than that it is the custom to take newborn babies to church for baptism when they are less than a day old; when, indeed, they may have had but three or four hours of life!-the father walking exultant by the side of the bonne, whose face is one broad smile above her white-clad burdenand the day perhaps a day of drizzling cold. No marvel that Europe was at the mercy of the Normans-no wonder the ancient Norman prayer ran: “O Lord, I do not ask you to favor me with good things, but only to tell me where they are, so that I may go and get them myself.”
And the thought comes of that day in the English Parliament less than a dozen years ago when the First Lord of the Treasury rose to demand that the custom of using the Norman tongue by the King of England, in approving or rejecting a law, be forever ended, whereupon the Prime Minister replied that it was impossible to do away with a custom so based upon historical tradition. How the Norman still rules!
An independent folk are those of the Cotentin, and of a stern directness. “Is a man poor?” said a farmer to me one day. “Then it is because he will not work! A man who will work can live.” And, after all, it is a farming, grazing, fishing country, full, therefore, of opportunity. It is a region where most of the people, though far from what may be called independently rich, are at least in the highly desirable condition of being independently poor. Here and there is a chateau, towered conically, avenued magnificently, with spacious grounds, environingly walled, but the typical homes of the countryside are the farmhouse and the cottage. It cannot be said that the richest is poor, but the other half of the familiar couplet is possibly enough true, that the poorest may live in abundance.
It was in a different direction from the coastwise points, in a rich country inland from Cherbourg, that I came upon the original home of the Montagues, or Montaigu, as it is here spelled; a name famous in English history and associations, yet here represented by a tiny church, an ancient graveyard, a petty village, and a few huge stones scattered and almost buried in the soil, marking where stood the ancient castle of the Montaigus; all set upon a low-lying hill.
Small though the church is, it has at least the dignity of age, and it stands among beech trees that are gnarled and twisted and moss-grown by time. The interior of the church, never impressive or beautiful, has been whitewashed into utter commonplaceness, save for the interest which a few old inscriptions give and that which goes with any ancient building in this ancient land. The neglected graveyard, with its stone wall grayed and greened with mosses-the mosses so thick that one can scarcely see that there is the wall beneath -gives an unmistakable impression of great antiquity, even though there is no very ancient in scription legible. In the center of the graveyard priest was absent, and a few peasants from whom I asked for information could only shake their heads. “It was, monsieur, that bodies were put there”; that was all, and how and why the custom originated, and why the skulls and bones were not buried when the custom ended, they could not even guess. I did not follow up the quest; it was really more effective, more impressive, as an uncanny thing come upon with entire unexpectedness and left entirely unexplained.
Among the picturesque customs of Normandy there is one that should specially be considered by any who look into the influence of one side of the Channel upon the other, for this custom, though it has nothing to do directly with English names, has at least a great deal to do with the most prominent of all Englishmen-the King himself. It is a custom which is typical of not only Normandy, but of all of France and of Italy, yet, strangely enough, it never obtained a hold in England, the country that it has most of all influenced. And it is the custom of washing clothes.
For the washtubs for the clothes of Normandy are, just as they were before the Conquest, the running streams, or little slab-lined pools at their edges; and that the drainage of a village or of many villages is mingled with the water has never been held to be a disadvantage. The women and girls kneel confabulatively, on rows of stones laid just in the current of the stream, or around the more popular and unsanitary pools. Washing clothes is a sociable, gregarious, conversational rite. Seldom have I seen a woman washing alone. The cleaning of the clothes of Normandy seems to demand companionship, and it is a pretty sound to hear the humming buzz of the talk and laughter, and it is a pretty sight to see the dark hair and flashing eyes, above the red or purple waists, bending up and down as the clothes are dipped and pounded and wrung. Of course, it is hard upon the clothes to beat them so vigorously upon rocks, but one must have his clothes washed in this way or not at all. And the only unpicturesque feature is the wheeling of the clothes home, for it is hard for a woman to look picturesque when pushing before her a loaded wheelbarrow.
The father of William of Normandy looked down from his castle window one day on a line of washers by the streamside, and his fancy was fascinated by the peculiar grace and beauty of one of them, a young girl of humble parentage. He ordered her up into the castle, such being among the pleasant prerogatives of a duke, and she became the mother of William the Conqueror. There is wonder and irony in it, there is curious commentary upon supposed standards, for the long line of British sovereigns, and the present British sovereign himself, have depended for their place in life, and their right of succession, upon unlegalized love for a peasant girl who pounded clothes upon a stone beside a Norman stream!