In France one is continually being reminded that food has the same supreme importance to the Frenchman as time has to the Anglo-Saxon. I called at the Syndicat d’Initiative at Perpignan to inquire about means of transport to Elne, the old town of Illiberis, renamed Helena by Constantine, where Hannibal rested after he had crossed the Pyrenees. The official produced a time-table; there was a bus at half-past eight, which I had missed: I should have to wait till half-past one. But there was one billed to leave Perpignan at eleven, I pointed out; could I not go by that? The official smiled, as at an oversight so glaring that a little amusement would not be resented. I had surely overlooked the fact that if I did it would be impossible to return to Perpignan in time for dejeuner? Was it impossible, then, to eat at Elne? I asked. He looked at me doubtfully. But one could surely get fruit, cheese, salad? It would undoubtedly be possible to get these things, if they would content me. I thanked him and departed, leaving another Frenchman, I suppose, confirmed in the opinion of the clown in Hamlet, that they are all mad in England.
Anywhere in France outside of Paris, dejeuner is the centre and focus of the day, the principal justification of its being, a repast which ranks even above dinner in importance. It would never occur to a Frenchman, certainly not to a provincial Frenchman, to sacrifice the certainty of a good dejeuner to any pleasure in the world. There are some matters in which it is useless folly to take risks; and this, he feels, is one of them. The provincial Frenchman nearly always eats at home, in the sense that he either eats under his own roof, or at a restaurant where he is well known, where he has his customary seat, and where his table-napkin is kept for him. The labourer in the vineyard, it is true, is sometimes compelled to take his midday meal perched among the mountains, half a dozen kilometres from his home. But he has provided for this, by building a little cabin there, with a chimney and a fireplace; and here his wife or daughter cooks his food for him, coming specially from the village for the purpose. Doubtless provincial Frenchmen do take holidays in these days, and do occasionally make excursions: they go to visit restaurants notable for their cuisine, and take the beauty spots and churches as they come. And doubtless a Frenchman will even eat a cold meal on occasion: you or I would jump into the ocean in December if the direst necessity compelled it, but not otherwise.
In the event, I found an excellent unpretentious little restaurant at Elne, where one could get, not only salad, fruit, and cheese, but also hors-d’oeuvres, an entree, and roast mutton, if one wanted them, as well as vegetables. The endives, lettuces, and cauliflowers of this district are, in point of size, the most impressive I have ever seen. The eager, hot-head growth this neighbourhood encourages is favourable to the first, the frisees and the escaroles; these giant striplings are most marvellously refreshing, and not bitter, as our native winter salads are. But with the cauliflowers and the like, which are the roasts, the meats and puddings of the garden, it is otherwise, and yet the same, since one is apt to lose in flavour what one gains in tenderness. For your serious vegetable needs to reach his ripeness, like a philosopher, with some gravity and slowness: to come on, to seem to hesitate, and even to retreat, but ever to advance by deliberate and due degrees, absorbing a rich portion of the earthy salts, refreshed and chastened by rain, sun, the threat of frost; as men are said to come to maturity by riding a hard course between triumph and adversity, and to pluck wisdom, which is a full and wholesome savour, from a score of imminent disasters. The best fruits of the south are those which, rolling all their sweetness into one ball, contrive to store it within a tough and pachydermatous hide, where it comes gradually and slowly to perfection.
That I chose to eat a vegetarian meal on this occasion provoked in the patronne a concern which in two respects was characteristically French. I have not found the food in English wayside hotels and restaurants quite so bad as it is commonly made out to be; still, it must be admitted that the English hotelier commonly regards his clients as an unpleasant nuisance, a body of impertinent strangers whom chance has thrust upon him, and whom custom requires him to provide with nourishment in return for the money to which he feels he has a natural right in any case. One knows that he is always looking back regretfully to the Middle Ages, when the traveller was lucky if he got a crust of bread instead of a blow on the head in exchange for all his worldly goods. The French hotelier has certainly no less keen an eye to business; but he manages to make one feel that one really is regarded as a guest; that he has an interest which transcends the purely financial in seeing that one does not leave his house unsatisfied. The honour of the individual and the sanctity of hospitality are involved in the transaction: that at least is the tradition, and in many French hotels it is still a living one.
As an instance of this, here at Elne the patronne pressed me to eat well, and with real warmth, though it was not to her financial advantage that I should do so, since I was paying a fixed price. For the a la carte meal is almost unknown in this part of France. Le repas, which is eitherlunch or dinner according to the time of day, costs so much, the price depending more on the furniture of the establishment than on any other factor; for one often gets as many courses at the humblest tavern as one does at the grandest restaurant, while the food, though naturally coarser at the former, may of its kind be just as good. How different is a country in which a high standard and a certain style in such matters is assumed, from England, where a man who concerns himself with these affairs is considered something of a curiosity, and is scarcely ever to be found except among the comparatively rich!
In the restaurant at Elne were two workmen, making their way steadily through the meal, which cost ten francs, including wine. Contrast this with the cut off the joint and two veg., at approximately half the price, which would be regarded as an extravagant meal for the labourer in England; and you may begin to wonder whether the carefully preserved “high standard of living” on which British governments pride themselves, is not in reality a sort of disguised sumptuary law, which secures, quite as effectively as any medieval system of prohibitions, that the good things of life shall be reserved for consumption by the wealthy.
Elne was sacked in turn by the Moors, the Normans, and by successive kings of France; and on the whole it looks it. Only the old cathedral, now the parish church, the cloister beside it, and a piece of the old wall remain to remind one that this unlovely village was the capital of Roussillon when Perpignan was a quiet country town. Like Narbonne, Elne has been deserted by the sea, which is now three miles away. Everywhere along this coast one sees the same thing: rivers reduced to a feeble trickle, their beds choked by the sediment they themselves have brought down from the mountains; and what were their estuaries now good dry land on which crops are raised. What the devil has happened to the water I am not geographer enough to know: for irrigation and waterworks cannot account for all of it. The streams and springs are tapped, their waters led in in-numerable channels all over the lower hillsides and the plain; for this area, comparatively rainless, is very intensively cultivated. What would happen if this work, which must in practice depend very largely on the goodwill of individual cultivators, were neglected, and the channels were allowed to become choked, a glance at the untilled margins of the fields is enough to show: in a few years the whole plain of Roussillon would be a desert, given over to the aloe and the prickly pear.
The old cathedral at Elne is a big, plain, imposing Romanesque structure of the kind they built when church had to serve as fortress too. It has two towers at its western end, of which one is a wretched modern affair of red brick, entirely incongruous beside the other, a four-square battlemented erection like a castle keep. The interior should be plain also; unfortunately it is not, but is adorned with that debased Spanish exuberance and want of taste, enough to make one turn Protestant if one were not already pagan, which is only tolerable in proportion as the spirit that inspires it is honest and sincere. Already sufficiently oppressed by this Christmas tree magnificence, I was overcome, like Cowper, by the full exhalations of a stinking breath, enriched with garlic, and emitted by a well meaning fellow who asked me if I would like to see the cloister. I did want to see the cloister; but I went to it by way of the fresh air and the door beside the Mairie, which has CLOISTER painted over it as if it were the entrance to a waiting room. One taps at the door of the Mairie; a young man in horn-rimmed glasses takes down a key, unlocks a door, and ushers one into the thirteenth century.
Though small, and for richness of decoration not to be compared with that of Saint-Trophime at Arles, the cloister of Elne is a perfect example of that principle of variety in unity which is the constant factor in all successful manifestations of the human creative genius. The total effect of serenity and balance is complete; and yet in detail the columns vary a great deal, nor are any two capitals, I believe, alike. In the plainest examples of medieval building one finds that the necessity for these two qualities, variety to stimulate the senses and an informing unity to soothe and, as it were, ennoble them, was understood. The barest Romanesque church or fortress has nothing in common with a modern petrol station; and the fact that in using that word ennoble I was conscious of a slight embarrassment, such as one experiences when one has been betrayed into quoting poetry before the contemporary business man or lawyer, and which may be supposed to attack the architect as it does the writer, may provide a sufficient explanation of the difference.
At the east end of the church there is a sort of terrace above the old wall, at the base of which the main road runs, where the youth of Elne flirts gently during the siesta-hour. As one stands here almost the whole plain of Roussillon is dispread before one’s view, the mountains on three sides, the sea and the strip of land from which it has re-ceded, with its margin of flat unmarked sand, on the fourth. Seeing it thus cupped in the hills, one realizes why this region has such a mild climate. It is true that the tramontane blows here, but the tramontane at its fiercest is the mistral with its teeth drawn. On this terrace there is a statue by Maillol, done in too soft a stone for its position, so that it has weathered badly, but beautiful as a War Memorial, and one of the few things of its kind that convince one of sincerity.
There is another work by Maillol, the best stone-carver working in his genre, and himself Roussillonais, in the fine Romanesque courtyard of the Hotel de ville at Perpignan. The building of which this is a part is an extraordinary mixture of styles, Moorish, Romanesque, and Gothic, in which a normal fourteenth-century facade stands cheek-by-jowl with one which resembles nothing so much as the Oriental Teashop in an English seaside town. But Perpignan is a city of such oppositions. Races, centuries, and cultures are inextricably mingled here, yet not so much compounded as they are, so to speak, emulsified. The inhabitants are at one moment French, at another Spanish; the women are often handsome, when they are not painted so thickly, and so clumsily, that they are hideous; the men wear their overcoats slung over their shoulders, cloak-fashion, as the English do at Monte Carlo. But the bull ring was transformed, three years ago, into a football stadium, in which the Sportive Union of the Harlequins of Perpignan fight their battles.
Having a fancy to see a certain Pyrenean spa, which advertised itself in what appeared to me unusual and rather engaging terms, as sleeping in the midst of forests of cork-trees and oleanders, I left Perpignan on a sunny morning, in a local bus with a beautiful pink ceiling. The ratchet of the hand-brake was broken; every time we stopped the driver fastened it in place with a leather strap, and, on restarting, unhooked it with a skilful movement as he let his clutch in. Pausing on a downhill slope, we took on a load of passengers and luggage, while the driver left his seat to hoist a package on the roof. As the last passenger got in the bus began to slide gently, under its own momentum, down the hill. The driver walked after it and jumped in, with a gesture intended to convey that this effect had been rehearsed.
The people of Roussillon have that casual attitude towards machinery which disinfects it, as it were, and takes the poison out of it. In these parts few mechanical contrivances work without some form of human collaboration unintended by the manufacturer. The Roussillonais has accepted the motor car for what it is: a means of speedy and convenient travel and, for those who can afford such luxuries, the best of toys. But, living in a country where one is never far from the roots of life, he is not so foolish as to suppose that speedy travel can ever be so important a matter as the pruning of the vines, the successful issue of a marriage, or a game of boule; and because he has the saving virtue of a laziness which is not incompatible with pride in doing a necessary job as well as possible, it seldom occurs to him to sacrifice the kind of life he likes, and with whose satisfactions he is familiar, to the remote chance of obtaining such a plaything.
It does happen sometimes that a Roussillonais goes away to a big industrial town to work; but he usually comes back, protesting that the wages offered do not compensate for what one has to undergo to get them. Here he shows his wisdom; for if you have at hand a way of life which suits you, it is obviously extremely foolish to abandon it in favour of something that, at its best, could only be a means to the same end. It is true that in any age the peasant’s life is far from perfect, it is often narrow, mean, restricted; but in the modern world it is still a life, a way of existence which offers a certain completeness in itself; whereas the contemporary city-dweller commonly has no life at all which can be called such, only toys and distractions, cinemas and motor cars and holidays, good things in themselves, but poor substitutes for living, to prevent him from committing suicide out of sheer despair and boredom. So the peasant, scenting danger, absorbs only so much progress as is good for him; he prefers a little substance to a lot of shadow and, except when his simplicity betrays him into political unwisdom, he holds tenaciously to his portion of reality. Within his limitations, he is wise. To find a way of life that suits you, to cling to it, accepting in a spirit of magnanimity, but only after diligent inquiry, such reforms as tend to promote the reasonable happiness of mankind, resisting bitterly all those that do not directly tend to such ends, that are calculated to benefit only the perverted or the irresponsible, or whose ends are unseen: such is the philosophy which has been recommended by the few men of free and enlightened intelligence in every century, and which, if practised, might have made the modern world a place if happiness and decency, instead of the uneasy chaos it is now, and the joyless ant-heap it is likely to become if it survives.
The Frenchman is a notoriously good driver, within this limitation, that he is a notoriously selfish one. The Roussillonais is perhaps a better, for he has all the usual French dash, and more patience. If he uses his horn as a threat and a challenge, he does so with good humour; for no one is ever really in a hurry in these parts, where they will tell you a train goes at six when it is booked to leave ten minutes earlier, and if you missed it would console you, I suppose, by pointing out that there will be another one tomorrow. But more often, I believe, he uses it under the amiable delusion that so long as his finger is on the button an accident is impossible, and believing that unless he is making a great deal of noise he is not getting his money’s worth from the machine. We whizzed at an immense speed along avenues of planes, the bark of which we seemed to scrape. The trees gave place presently to bamboo hedges: these, the olives, the aloes, and cactus growing by the road-side, the rich red earth, the eternal vines, the intense glowing light and warmth, gave one a much better realization of the south than the slightly spurious subtropicality of Perpignan. The bus was full of parcels, the atmosphere was pleasantly informal. The snowy top of Canigou shone with a theatrical dazzling whiteness in the sun. We stopped at a place called Le Boulou, where the driver and conductor descended to chat with the inhabitants. Coming out of the village, the road pointed straight as an arrow at the mountains which, seen in a frame of trees, were bright blue, their colour exactly matching the ends of some barrels by the roadside, painted that uncompromising shade which is so popular in France.
The road began to climb. At Pont de Ceret we crossed the river Tech by a sort of tight-rope, a bridge just wide enough to take a car, and ninety-five feet high, which it is said the Romans built. The driver, seeing that the road wound round the hillside in a series of intimidating curves, increased his speed, to get the danger over quickly, or to amuse himself and us. We saw in front of us a Pyrenean village piled on a hill, to the left of it a small town, built at a number of different levels, variegated with mimosas, nothing if not picturesque, but in the most charming fashion, not at all resembling a picture post card. This was Amelie-les-Bains, where I lunched enormously, and very well, in a hermetically sealed room, whose walls, adorned with blood-red cabbages, enclosed a horde of individuals eating and drinking as if on the eve of departure for the Arctic and a six-months’ diet of pemmican and candle grease.
This place has enjoyed some reputation as a spa for the last two thousand years: there are remains of Roman baths. But today it is little known outside France. The English go to Vernet, on the other side of Canigou. The climate is extremely mild; oranges were hanging, perhaps a little selfconsciously, in the gardens of its trim, smug villas, and I saw a camellia and a magnolia tree in bloom. After lunch I set out to walk to Montalba, a mountain village to the south. Besides the mimosa growing in profusion, I saw cherry blossom, though it was February still, and black-thorn, the most English of the hedgerow growths; they say that in a good year one may eat cherries here in April. A profusion of wild shrubs and flowers grew beside the road, which wound up the mountain-side, the mimosa growing scarcer as it rose, the various plants of celluloid and guttapercha, stiff and glaucous, such as one finds on English rockeries, the pride of the unmarried daughter of the house, becoming commoner. Two greens on a single stem were an obvious model for the tropic vegetation in a douanier Rousseau, among which crouches an upholstered tiger, its expression echoing the whiskered suavity of harmless necessary toms. The hillside, which rose steeply on my right, clothed in gorse and a kind of ling, and showing the bare rock on the summit, descended with equal precipitation on the left to the bed of the stream a hundred feet or so below.
This was the typical local landscape, of which the characteristic feature is that here, at a mere thousand or two thousand feet above sea-level, one may feel as if one were high up in the Juras or the Alps, and with which I was to grow tolerably familiar in the course of a subsequent stay of some days in Amelie. It was while following a path in this same gorge on my left that I came suddenly on a notice-board with its back turned to me, on walking round which I was confronted by the startling message “NO WAY: WOLF TRAPS”; and was only saved by an inborn scepticism from a terrifying sense of the dangers I had unwittingly escaped. Materially and actually, there are no wolves left in the Pyrenees: in spirit they remain. Within a few miles of Amelie you may find half a dozen hamlets where life has not altered much since Roman times; and, what is stranger, where such changes as have occurred have been for the better. Vini-culture progresses slowly, architecture reaches a certain stage of development and there, happily, becomes fixed. The train and the motor car have affected the hill people less than the invention of the wheel. There is Palalda, for example, which looks like an Italian village, where, despite glazed windows and unread advertisements for Gentiane, the ground floor of every house is given up to the rabbits and the poultry, and human habitation starts on the floor above.
From this village, where the church has a fine door, whose elaborate ironwork, where it has fallen away, has been replaced by horseshoes, chased by a lucky amateur hand, I climbed, on a hot Sunday afternoon, the local mountain of Montbolo. A good road goes all the way, for the height of this peak, which I have seen wrapped in cloud on more than one occasion, is less than nineteen hundred feet. One goes through cork woods, past a marble quarry. At the top is a tiny hamlet; a few cottages, a Mairie, in which a gramophone is being played, a church. From here you may look over the plain of Roussillon to the Mediterranean, thirty miles or so away. By the churchyard is a War Memorial. There is something infinitely touching, something which speaks insistently of the waste, injustice, and futility of war, in the half-dozen names carved under the legend Morts Pour La Patric. ‘What have these humble tenders of the vine, who ask nothing from life but what they can themselves provide, to do with the dishonesties and mistakes of politicians, the intrigues of business men?
In this neighbourhood, where the frontier makes a bulge into the mountains, one is as far south as it is possible to get in France. Coustouges, I suppose, might claim to be the most southerly French village; the latitude of Amelie itself is only half a degree more northerly than that of Ajaccio. In this southern peninsula the old Spanish influence is still strong: it is said that at La Presta, Arles-sur-Tech,l and Prats-de-Mollo, the Catalan festivals and customs have been retained in a purer form than in Catalonia itself. At Arles 1 there is a fine church, Romanesque, austere and bare, a bar-rack if you like, but how magnificent! Houses hem it in, their walls in places inseparable from its fabric; at the side is a cloister, from which one looks into a cobbled court, lined with acacias, grey against the soft blue-green of the doors and shutters. Outside the west door of the church there is an old stone sarcophagus, lidded and raised from the ground, from which, at certain festivals, the priest draws water that is credited with blessed properties, and said to be miraculously renewed. A year or so ago some journalists obtained permission to conduct an inquiry into the truth of the legend. Under the supervision of the cure they removed the lid of the sarcophagus, drew off some of the water, and waited to see what would happen. In a short time the water had resumed its former level.
But I am still on my way to Montalba, drawn on by an amiable obsession that on reaching it I shall be transported, at one bound, some miles nearer Spain. The way is long, the afternoon is hot, my time is limited. A man I meet assures me that I have no more than half an hour’s easy walking still to do. “But the place is nothing,” he says. “Just a few stones.” A sign scrawled on the cliff directs me to the Roc de France. The Rock of France! Could any name for a mountain be more romantic? I drink from a spring, remind myself of a private vow I have made to catch a glimpse of this “heap of stones,” and leave the road for a footpath which runs beside a stream. It is already more than half an hour since I left my informant, and I have been walking not easily, but fast. I am due in Perpignan that evening, and the last bus leaves in an hour and a half. A few cottages, a small church, come into sight. With my foot on the threshold of the hamlet, fulfilling my vow in the letter, but not in the spirit, I must turn back towards Amelie.
I rode back to Perpignan in the gathering twilight. The red earth, drawing to itself the last radiance of the day, grew deeper, a rare patch of green glowed with a jewel-like quality, the purple hills turned slowly to a rich dark plum colour. The handsome Catalan conductor went round shaking hands with all the passengers. We stopped at the crossroads where the road runs on to the border; a knot of people came in the still of the evening to meet the bus. Among them was a young woman carrying a baby, a superb brown-skinned creature, with glowing eyes and a magnificently straight back. As we passed the octroi, coming into Perpignan, the last of the daylight faded behind us, the lights were being turned on in the town, the stars came out.Perpignan seemed flat and airless to me that evening. In the morning I packed my bags and departed for the mountains and the sea.
My arrival at Collioure was accompanied by cataclysmic occurrences, to which both Nature and man contributed. The tramontane was blowing, tearing the flimsy wisps of foreign speech from one’s lips, and scattering them like confetti, muddling the senses and making ordered thought impossible. The bus which had just deposited me on what appeared to be an inhospitable ledge of rock, set insecurely above an angry sea, had scarcely disappeared from sight, when a terrific explosion rent the air, and a shower of stones and boulders descended on the garden of the hotel at which I was to stay. The authorities were widening the Corniche, the cliff road that leads to Spain. Well might they do so! This road, one of the principal routes to Barcelona and Madrid, winds like a switchback from this point to the frontier and beyond, while scarcely anywhere between Collioure and Cerbere is there room for two cars to pass without a desperate squeeze, yet I have seen a lorry drive along here on a dark night without lights, relying on the headlamps of the vehicle in front.
I had been warned that Carcassonne would certainly disappoint me, and found it enchanting. Consequently, having been told that Collioure was the one place where I could count on warm weather, and on getting out of the wind, at this time of the year, I was not at all surprised at being greeted by a howling gale, which made it impossible to work with one’s window open, or to go out without an overcoat. I was fresh from the balmy airs of Amelie-les-Bains, and, though in London and Paris my friends shivered in snow-storms and blizzards, thought myself ill-used if I did not encounter July weather. For three days the wind continued without cessation; even when just round the corner, at Banyuls-sur-Mer, one could take one’s pleasure in the open air, there was a tearing breeze at Collioure. It seemed to me that I had chanced on the windiest seaside resort in Europe.
Even if I had been entitled to form an opinion on the evidence of those three days alone, I think that in reaching such a conclusion I should have been unjust. The tramontane is irritating, even chilly, but it never has that freezing, deathly quality of the mistral, which at this season can make Provence and the Riviera as cold as Vladivostok for a week on end. Roussillon, on the whole, has a better climate at this time of year than any other part of France; at the seaside one must expect the weather to be fresh.
However this may be, on the fourth morning I awoke with a feeling that some element of the consciousness to which I had become accustomed was missing; it was some moments before I realized that the roaring of the wind and the lashing of the waves no longer sounded in my ears. “There is no wind!” I said incredulously. I went to the window and looked out on a morning of hot sunshine, a calm sea, intensely blue. The brightly painted boats which had been drawn up on the beach, from which they had not budged for the last three days, were gone: the fishermen of Collioure, who never venture forth if the slightest ripple disturbs the surface of the water, had gone out to hunt the sardine.
Later I went out to see the return of the fleet and the disposal of the catch. The glittering green and silver fishes are shovelled into baskets, and sold by Dutch auction to the representatives of the canning firms. The skipper of the vessel last returned assumes the expression of one who confidently expects the worst, takes his stand by the basket and, beginning at a figure conventionally high, gabbles rapidly down the scale until a bid is made. The whole catch is thus disposed of in a few minutes, and the crew then put to sea again, or, what is much more probable, go home to lunch.
The capture of the sardine and the anchovy, their embalmment in brine or oil: round these activities the life of Collioure revolves, and at a sober pace. This little fishing village was in Roman times, and during the Majorcan dynasty, a port of considerable reputation; why I cannot imagine, for the sea is always a little rougher inside the harbour than outside, and there are rocks in it. It appears incredible that it can ever have afforded a safe haven to anything much larger than a fishing smack. But the Roman galleys, after all, were only glorified rowing-boats, beached when they were not in use; and Sancho’s royal yacht, I dare say, was not much more. The kings of Aragon and Majorca had a summer palace here; the great Chateau, for so long continuously in use, repaired and altered by so many successive tenants, that it is impossible to say how old its fabric is, gave shelter to their royal persons, and to those of their spouses. It is said that Yolande, widow of King John the First of Aragon, would spend hour after hour staring at the sea through one of those windows out of which a black soldier now gazes towards Africa.
The people of Collioure are noticeably different from the other inhabitants of Roussillon, whether of the mountains or the plain. The Moorish influence was especially strong here; local legends abound in vague references to “the Moors.” The Colliourencs are dark and swarthy, with a swarthiness distinct from the normal meridional tan. And certainly they have something of the Arab laziness, and, something, it is said, of the Arab attitude to women. It is the women who do the work in Collioure, bending for hours over the foul-smelling pickling vats, drawing water, cooking, ministering to their lords. The fisherman sits in the cafe, from which he issues only when the weather is unexceptionable, and then perhaps only to wet his net, in order to qualify for the government pension awarded to those who have recorded so many days of fishing over a period of years. The Gallic addiction to politics, grafted on to his natural indolence, makes him the most gullible of voters. He will support any movement which promises to make life easier for him, without considering its ultimate effect or who is going to pay the reckoning. Some time ago a young Colliourenc, noted for his extreme political views, and his scorn of the proprietaire, to his embarrassment inherited a fishing boat, and thus became a member of the hated tribe. This placed him in an appalling quandary, for to become an employer and a capitalist was against his principles: on the other hand, no true Frenchman and friend of liberty could continue to work for others in such circumstances. Perhaps if he took no actual part in the management of the concern . . . Yet he must draw his share, for it is necessary to live. . . . At the same time he inherited a vineyard. Of course he would work this? said his friends.
There could be no objection if he did so single-handed. Not a bit of it, said he; he was a fisherman, not a miserable grubber in the earth; to cultivate the soil was beneath his dignity. The vineyard was left to the mercy of the weather and the weeds. Today he sits in the cafe, a rentier in spite of himself, idle, discontented, supported by the labour of others, grumbling and preaching vengeance on the idle rich. “What is the matter with you?” an acquaintance asked him. “Life is easy here in the south, in the sunshine. A little bread, a little wine, some fish one needs no more to be happy if one has the sun. You could be the happiest of men if only you would forget your grievances. What do you want?” The young man, scowling, turned over the pages of an illustrated magazine. “I, too,” he said, “should like to ski!”
But on the whole the Colliourenc is a good fellow, well disposed, and merry, which is a virtue in this dull world; and if his complaints are beginning to cause trouble, there is no doubt where one should attach the blame. The Colliourenc has been grumbling for a thousand years, while leading one of the finest lives imaginable, because to grumble is his habit; no one has taken any notice of him. Now politicians who have not learned their job, which is to know something about human nature, or who are dishonest, are beginning to listen to his complaints, and to provide him with electric winches and such like amenities; not out of compassion for his hard lot, you may be sure, but for the sake of a few hundred votes and a commission on the supply of these things. What is the result? The fisherman, who used to stay at sea for twenty-four hours or longer at a time, and to go as far afield as Sete to sell what he had caught, now goes out for a morning’s fishing when it’s fine enough, and is almost indifferent to the price his catch may fetch, secure in the certainty that that mysterious entity, the Government, will look after him whatever happens. So far, so good: with the Colliourenc’s desire to lead the kind of lazy life he likes I am entirely in sympathy. To suppose that there is necessarily any virtue in working harder than you have to in order to procure such material requirements as satisfy you, when the desire of fame or worldly ambition do not draw you on, is a puritan heresy. In certain organizations of society, hard work is a virtue; in others, it may be definitely anti-social. But no system of society has yet been evolved which enables one to have one’s cake and eat it too.
In the future State, we know, we shall all be maintained without working by a mysterious agency called Science, and spend all our time at football matches; but in the present world, if a body of men decreases its output at the same time as it increases its capitalization, it does so at the expense of some other body, or ultimately at its own. And those who evade the realities of this situation by imagining that it is the idle rich who foot the bill on such occasions may be compared to those creatures of a humble order, which, such is their voracity and insensibility, continue to feed on the bodies of their victims while their own are being devoured by an enemy.
Progress is like strong liquor: a little of it, absorbed slowly, may he beneficial; a greater quantity will deprive you of your senses, and end by destroying you. We might carry this comparison a little further, and remind ourselves that though excess is good for nobody, the people of the north seem to be able to absorb more of it without harm than those of the south. In the north ideals, dram-drinking, and the sense of duty flourishthings that do not necessarily add to the amenities of life. The Gaul is a wine-drinker, an individualist, and a cynic. In France almost everything that is run by private enterprise is run well, and everything that is run by the Government is run very badly.
During the rest of my stay in Roussillon, the weather continued to be variable. Days when an exasperating wind whirled dust into one’s eyes, and only good food compensated for the weather, alternated with days of hot sunshine and intense blue sea and sky. Once snow whitened the ridge of foothills immediately behind Collioure, less than a thousand feet above sea-level. But on the day when there was news of heavy snowfalls over the greater part of England and France, and as far south as Toulouse, one could scramble on the rocks without overcoat or jacket, feeling the sunshine soaking into one’s body through a thin sweater. At Collioure I sat in the open air at ten o’clock at night, without a coat on, the Mediterranean stretched out, smooth as a lake, from just before my feet, a fig tree already budding into leaf beside me. Where else in Europe, I wonder, apart perhaps from Sicily, could one do this in comfort at the end of February? Not on the Riviera, certainly. The five o’clock chill which is a feature of the Alpine littoral is unknown on the Pyrenean, where a warm day is followed by a warm evening, unless a definite change of weather intervenes. The huge palms, with their thick, elephant-grey trunks, the well-laden orange and lemon trees which are the ordinary garden growths of this locality, provide the best evidence of its climate. Long before I left Roussillon I ate fresh peas, and saw roses and stocks blooming beside the usual spring flowers.
Yet snow sometimes falls here, even at sea-level, though both snow and rain are comparatively rare. The inhabitants, who are inured to wind, regard a shower with something of the same distrustful awe as an English housemaid accords to a thunderstorm; and though their invariable footwear consists of bedroom slippers, or at best of espadrilles, refuse to venture forth at such times without capital protection. Thus a mason, called upon to work during a light fall of rain, repaired a wall with one hand, while with the other he held up an umbrella; and at midday cycled home to his meal similarly sheltered.
This tale was recounted to me by the owner of the wall in question, but I had no opportunity to test its credibility; for during the whole of my stay in Roussillon, at a time when the valleys of the Rhone and Seine were flooded, rain fell only twice, and then it was nothing but a few drops lasting half an hour or an hour at a time.