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Chapter 20

LETTER XX.

The Equinox.—Storm on the Lake.—Chase of a little Boat.—Chateau of Blonay.—Drive to Lausanne.—Mont Benon.—Trip to Geneva in the Winkelried.—Improvements in Geneva.—Russian Travellers.—M. Pozzo di Borgo.—Table d'hôte.—Extravagant Affirmations of a Frenchman.—Conversation with a Scotchman.—American Duels.—Visit at a Swiss Country-house.—English Customs affected in America.—Social Intercourse in the United States.—Difference between a European and an American Foot and Hand.—Violent Gale.—Sheltered position of Vévey.—Promenade.—Picturesque View.—The great Square.—Invitation.—Mountain Excursion.—An American Lieutenant.—Anecdote.—Extensive Prospect.—Chateau of Glayrole.

Dear ——,

We have had a touch of the equinox, and the Leman has been in a foam, but its miniature anger, though terrible enough at times, to those who are embarked on its waters, can never rise to the dignity of a surf and a rolling sea. The rain kept me housed, and old John and I seized the occasion to convert a block of pine into a Leman bark, for P——. The next day proving fair, our vessel, fitted with two latine sails, and carrying a weather helm, was committed to the waves, and away she went, on a wind, toward the opposite shore. P——, of course, was delighted, and clapped his hands, until, perceiving that it was getting off the land, he compelled us to enter the boat and give chase. A chase it was, truly; for the little thing went skipping from wave, to wave, in such a business-like manner, that I once thought it would go all the way to Savoy. Luckily a flaw caused it to tack, when it soon became our prize. We were a long distance off when the boat was overtaken, and I thought the views behind the town finer, at that position, than when nearer in. I was particularly struck with the appearance of the little chateau of Blonay, which is still the residence of a family of the same name, that has been seated, for more than seven centuries, on the same rocky terrace. I was delighted to hear that its present owner is a liberal, as every ancient gentleman should be. Such a man ought to be cautious how he tarnishes his lineage with unjust or ungenerous sentiments.

The equinoctial blow returned the next day, and the lake became really fine, in a new point of view; for, aided by the mountains, it succeeded in getting up a very respectable appearance of fury. The sail-boats vanished, and even the steamers went through it with a good deal of struggling and reluctance.

As soon as the weather became better, we went to Lausanne, preferring the road, with a view to see the country. It is not easy to fancy anything prettier than this drive, which ran, nearly the whole distance, along the foot of hills, that would be mountains anywhere else, and quite near the water. The day was beautiful, and we had the lake, with its varying scenery and movement, the whole time in sight; while the road, an excellent solid wheel-track, wound between the walls of vineyards, and was so narrow as scarcely to admit the passage of two carriages at a time. At a short distance from Lausanne, we left the margin of the lake, and ascended to the level of the town, through a wooded and beautifully ornamented country.

We found our friends established in one of the numberless villas that dot the broken land around the place, with their windows commanding most of that glorious view that I have already described to you. Mont Benon, a beautiful promenade, was close at hand, and, in the near view, the eye ranged over fields, verdant and smooth lawns, irregular in their surfaces, and broken by woods and country-houses. A long attenuated reach of the lake stretched away towards Geneva, while the upper end terminated in its noble mountains, and the mysterious, glen-like gorge of Valais. We returned from this excursion in the evening, delighted with the exterior of Lausanne, and more and more convinced that, all things considered, the shores of this lake unite greater beauties, with better advantages as a residence, than any other part of Switzerland.

After remaining at Vévey a day or two longer, I went to Geneva, in the Winkelried, which had got a new commander; one as unaffected as his predecessor had been fantastical. Our progress was slow, and, although we reached the port early enough to prevent being locked out, with the exception of a passage across Lake George, in which the motion seemed expressly intended for the lovers of the picturesque, I think this the most deliberate run, or rather walk, I ever made by steam.

I found Geneva much changed, for the better, in the last four years. Most of the hideous sheds had been pulled down from the fronts of the houses, and a stone pier is building, that puts the mighty port of New York, with her commercial energies, to shame. In other respects, I saw no material alterations in the place. The town was crowded, more of the travellers being French, and fewer English, than common. As for the Russians, they appear to have vanished from the earth, to my regret; for in addition to being among the most polished people one meets, (I speak of those who travel), your Russian uniformly treats the American kindly. I have met with more personal civilities, conveyed in a delicate manner, from these people, and especially from the diplomatic agents of Russia, than from any others in Europe, and, on the whole, I have cause, personally, to complain of none; or, in other words, I do not think that personal feeling warps my judgment, in this matter. M. Pozzo di Borgo, when he gave large entertainments, sent a number of tickets to Mr. Brown to be distributed among his countrymen, and I have heard this gentleman say, no other foreign minister paid him this attention. All this may be the result of policy, but it is something to obtain civil treatment in this world, on any terms. You must be here, to understand how completely we are overlooked.

Late as we were, we were in time for dinner, which I took at a table d'hôte that was well crowded with French. I passed as an Englishman, as a matter of course, and had reason to be much amused with some of the conversation. One young Frenchman very coolly affirmed that two members had lately fought with pistols in the hall of Congress, during the session, and his intelligence was received with many very proper exclamations of horror. The young man referred to the rencontre which took place on the terrace of the Capitol, in which the party assailed was a member of Congress; but I have no doubt he believed all he said, for such is the desire to blacken the American name just now, that every unfavourable incident is seized upon and exaggerated, without shame or remorse. I had a strong desire to tell this young man that the affair to which he alluded, did not differ essentially from that of M. Calémard de Lafayette[37], with the exception that no one was slain at Washington; but I thought it wiser to preserve my incognito.

The next day our French party was replaced by another, and the master of the house promoted me to the upper end of his table, as an old boarder. Here I found myself, once more, in company with an Englishman, an Irishman, and a Scotchman. The two former sat opposite to me, and the last at my side. The civilities of the table passed between us, especially between the Scotchman and myself, with whom I fell into discourse. After a little while, my neighbour, a sensible shrewd fellow enough, by the way of illustrating his opinion, and to get the better of me, cited some English practice, in connexion with "you in England." I told him I was no Englishman. "No Englishman! you are not a Scotchman?" "Certainly not." "Still less an Irishman!" "No." My companion now looked at me as hard as a well-bred man might, and said earnestly, "Where did you learn to speak English so well?" "At home, as you did—I am an American." "Umph!" and a silence of a minute; followed by abruptly putting the question of—"What is the reason that your duels in America are so bloody?—I allude particularly to some fought in the Mediterranean by your naval officers. We get along, with less vindicative fighting." As this was rather a sharp and sudden shot, I thought it best to fire back, and I told him, "that as to the Mediterranean, our officers were of opinion they were ill-treated, till they began to shoot those who inflicted the injuries; since which time all had gone on more smoothly. According to their experience, their own mode of fighting was much the most efficacious, in that instance at least."

As he bore this good-naturedly, thinking perhaps his abrupt question merited a saucy answer, we soon became good friends. He made a remark or two, in better taste than the last, on the facts of America, and I assured him he was in error, showing him wherein his error lay. He then asked me why some of our own people did not correct the false impressions of Europe, on the subject of America, for the European could only judge by the information laid before him. He then mentioned two or three American writers, who he thought would do the world a service by giving it a book or two, on the subject. I told him that if they wrote honestly and frankly, Europe would not read their books, for prejudice was not easily overcome, and no favourable account of us would be acceptable. It would not be enough for us to confess our real faults, but we should be required to confess the precise faults that, according to the notions of this quarter of the world, we are morally, logically, and politically bound to possess. This he would not admit, for what man is ever willing to confess that his own opinions are prejudiced?

I mention this little incident, because its spirit, in my deliberate judgment, forms the rule, in the case of the feeling of all British subjects, and I am sorry to say the subjects of most other European countries; and the mawkish sentiment and honeyed words that sometimes appear in toasts, tavern dinners, and public speeches, the exception. I may be wrong, as well as another, but this, I repeat for the twentieth time, is the result of my own observations; you know under what opportunities these observations have been made, and how far they are likely to be influenced by personal considerations.

In the evening I accompanied a gentleman, whose acquaintance I had made at Rome, to the country-house of a family that I had also had the pleasure of meeting during their winter's residence in that town. We passed out by the gate of Savoy, and walked a mile or two, among country-houses and pleasant alleys of trees, to a dwelling not unlike one of our own, on the Island of Manhattan, though furnished with more taste and comfort than it is usual to meet in America. M. and Mad. N—— were engaged to pass the evening at the house of a connexion near by, and they frankly proposed that we should be of the party. Of course we assented, leaving them to be the judges of what was proper.

At this second dwelling, a stone's throw from the other, we found a small party of sensible and well-bred people, who received me as a stranger, with marked politeness, but with great simplicity. I was struck with the repast, which was exactly like what a country tea is, or perhaps I ought to say, used to be, in respectable families, at home, who have not, or had not, much of the habits of the world. We all sat round a large table, and, among other good things that were served, was an excellent fruit tart! I could almost fancy myself in New England, where I remember a judge of a supreme court once gave me custards, at a similar entertainment. The family we had gone to see, were perhaps a little too elegant for such a set-out, for I had seen them in Rome with mi-lordi and monsignori, at their six o'clock dinners; but the quiet good sense with which everybody dropped into their own distinctive habits at home, caused me to make a comparison between them and ourselves, much to the disadvantage of the latter. I do not mean that usages ought not to change, but that usages should be consistent with themselves, and based on their general fitness and convenience for the society for which they are intended. This is good sense, which is commonly not only good-breeding, but high-breeding.

The Genevois are French in their language, in their literature, and consequently in many of their notions. Still they have independence enough to have hours, habits, and rules of intercourse that they find suited to their own particular condition. The fashions of Paris, beyond the point of reason, would scarcely influence them; and the answer would probably be, were a discrepancy between the customs pointed out, "that the usage may suit Paris, but it does not suit Geneva." How is it with, us? Our women read in novels and magazines, that are usually written by those who have no access to the society they write about, and which they oftener caricature than describe, that people of quality in England go late to parties; and they go late to parties, too, to be like English people of quality. Let me make a short comparison, by way of illustration. The English woman of quality, in town, rises at an hour between nine and twelve. She is dressed by her maid, and if there are children, they are brought to her by a child's maid: nourishing them herself is almost out of the question. Her breakfast is eaten between eleven and one. At three or four she may lunch. At four she drives out; at half-past seven she dines. At ten she begins to think of the evening's amusement, and is ready for it, whatever it may be, unless it should happen to be the opera, or the theatre, (the latter being almost proscribed as vulgar), when she necessarily forces herself to hours a little earlier. She returns home, between one and four, is undressed by her maid, and sleeps until ten or even one, according to circumstances. These are late hours, certainly, and in some respects unwise; but they have their peculiar advantages, and, at all events, they are consistent with themselves.

In New York, the house is open for morning visits at twelve, and with a large straggling town, bad attendance at the door, and a total want of convenience in public vehicles, unless one travels in a stage-coach, yclept an omnibus, it is closed at three, for dinner. Sending a card would be little short of social treason. We are too country-bred for such an impertinence. After dinner, there is an interval of three hours, when tea is served, and the mistress of the house is at a loss for employment until ten, when she goes into the world, in order to visit at the hour she has heard, or read, that fashion prescribes such visits ought to be made, in other countries, England in particular. Here she remains until one or two, returns home, undresses herself, passes a sleepless morning, perhaps, on account of a cross child, and rises at seven to make her husband's coffee at eight!

There is no exaggeration in this, for such is the dependence and imitation of a country that has not sufficient tone to think and act for itself, in still graver matters, that the case might even be made stronger, with great truth.—The men are no wiser. When invited, they dine at six; and at home, as a rule, they dine between three and four. A man who is much in society, dines out at least half his time, and consequently he is eating one day at four and the next at six, all winter!

The object of this digression is to tell you that, so far as my observation goes, we are the only people who do not think and act for ourselves, in these matters. French millinery may pass current throughout Christendom, for mere modes of dress are habits scarce worth resisting; but in Germany, Belgium, Italy, Switzerland, or wherever we have resided, I have uniformly found that, in all essentials, the people have hours and usages of their own, founded on their own governing peculiarities of condition. In America, there is a constant struggle between the force of things and imitation, and the former often proving the strongest, it frequently renders the latter lame, and, of course, ungraceful. In consequence of this fact, social intercourse with us is attended with greater personal sacrifices, and returns less satisfaction, than in most other countries. There are other causes, beyond a doubt, to assist in producing such a result; more especially in a town like New York, that doubles its population in less than twenty years; but the want of independence, and the weakness of not adapting our usages to our peculiar condition, ought to be ranked among the first. In some cases, necessity compels us to be Americans, but whenever there is a tolerable chance, we endeavour to become "second chop English."

In a fit of gallantry, I entered a jeweller's shop, next day, and bought a dozen or fifteen rings, with a view to distribute them, on my return, among my young country women at Vévey, of whom there were now not less than eight or ten, three families having met at that place. It may serve to make the ladies of your family smile, when I add, that, though I was aware of the difference between a European and an American foot and hand,[38] every one of my rings, but three, had to be cut, in order to be worn! It will show you how little one part of mankind know the other, if I add, that I have often met with allusions in this quarter of the world to the females of America, in which the writers have evidently supposed them to be coarse and masculine! The country is deemed vulgar, and by a very obvious association, it has been assumed that the women of such a country must have the same physical peculiarities as the coarse and vulgar here. How false this notion is, let the rings of Geneva testify; for when I presented my offerings, I was almost laughed out of countenance.

A wind called the bise had been blowing for the last twenty-four hours, and when we left Vévey the gale was so strong, that the steam-boat had great difficulty in getting ahead. This is a north wind, and it forces the water, at times, into the narrow pass at the head of the lake, in a way to cause a rise of some two or three feet. We had taken a large empty bark in tow, but by the time we reached Nyon, where the lake widens suddenly, the boat pitched and struggled so hard, as to render it advisable to cast off the tow, after which we did much better. The poor fellow, as he fell off broadside to the sea, which made a fair breach over him, and set a shred of sail, reminded me of a man who had been fancying himself in luck, by tugging at the heels of a prosperous friend, but who is unexpectedly cut adrift, when he is found troublesome. I did not understand his philosophy, for, instead of hauling in for the nearest anchorage, he kept away before it, and ran down for Geneva, as straight as a bee that is humming towards its hive.

The lake gradually grew more tranquil as we proceeded north, and from Lausanne to Vévey we actually had smooth water. I saw vessels becalmed, or with baffling winds, under this shore, while the bise was blowing stiff, a few leagues farther down the lake. When I got home I was surprised to hear that the family had been boating the previous evening, and that there had scarcely been any wind during the day. This difference was owing to the sheltered position of Vévey, of which the fact may serve to give you a better notion than a more laboured description.

The following morning was market-day, and I walked upon the promenade early, to witness the arrival of the boats. There was not a breath of wind, even to leeward, for the bise had blown itself out of breath. The bay of Naples, in a calm, scarcely presents a more picturesque view, than the head of the lake did, on this occasion. I counted more than fifty boats in sight; all steering towards Vévey, stealing along the water, some crossing from Savoy, in converging lines, some coming down, and others up the sheet, from different points on the Swiss side. The great square was soon crowded, and I walked among the peasants to observe their costumes and listen to their language. Neither, however, was remarkable, all speaking French, and, at need, all I believe using a patois, which does not vary essentially from that of Vaud. There was a good deal of fruit, some of which was pretty good, though it did not appear in the abundance we had been taught to expect. The grapes were coming in, and they promised to be fine. Though it is still early for them, we have them served at breakfast, regularly, for they are said to be particularly healthful when eaten with the morning dew on them. We try to believe ourselves the better for a regimen that is too agreeable to be lightly dropped. Among other things in the market, I observed the inner husks of Indian corn, that had been dried in a kiln or oven, rubbed, and which were now offered for sale as the stuffing of beds. It struck me that this was a great improvement on straw.

I had received a visit the day before from a principal inhabitant of Vévey, with an invitation to breakfast, at his country-house, on the heights. This gratuitous civility was not to be declined, though it was our desire to be quiet, as we considered the residence at Vévey, a sort of villagiatura, after Paris. Accordingly, I got into a char, and climbed the mountain for a mile and a half, through beautiful pastures and orchards, by narrow winding lanes, that, towards the end, got to be of a very primitive character. Without this little excursion, I should have formed no just idea of the variety in the environs of the place, and should have lost a good deal of their beauty. I have told you that this acclivity rises behind the town, for a distance exceeding a mile, but I am now persuaded it would have been nearer the truth had I said a league. The majesty of Swiss nature constantly deceives the eye, and it requires great care and much experience to prevent falling into these mistakes. The house I sought, stood on a little natural terrace, a speck on the broad breast of the mountain, or what would be called a mountain, were it not for the granite piles in its neighbourhood, and was beautifully surrounded by woods, pastures, and orchards. We were above the vine.

A small party, chiefly females, of good manners and great good sense, were assembled, and our entertainment was very much what it ought to be, simple, good, and without fuss. After I had been formally presented to the rest of the company, a young man approached, and was introduced as a countryman. It was a lieutenant of the navy, who had found his way up from the Mediterranean squadron to this spot. It is so unusual to meet Americans under such circumstances, that his presence was an agreeable surprise. Our people abound in the taverns and public conveyances, but it is quite rare that they are met in European society at all.

One of the guests to-day recounted an anecdote of Cambacérè's, which was in keeping with a good banquet. He and the arch-chancelier were returning from a breakfast in the country, together, when he made a remark on the unusual silence of his companion. The answer was, "Je digère."

We walked through the grounds, which were prettily disposed, and had several good look-outs. From one of the latter we got a commanding view of all the adjacent district. This acclivity is neither a côte, as the French call them, nor a hill-side, nor yet a mountain, but a region. Its breadth is sufficiently great to contain hamlets, as you already know, and, seen from this point, the town of Vévey came into the view, as a mere particle. The head of the lake lay deep in the distance, and it was only when the eye rose to the pinnacles of rock, hoary with glaciers above, that one could at all conceive he was not already perched on a magnificent Alp. The different guests pointed out their several residences, which were visible at the distance of miles, perhaps, all seated on the same verdant acclivity.

I descended on foot, the road being too precipitous in places to render even a char pleasant. On rejoining the domestic circle, we took boat and pulled towards the little chateau-looking dwelling, on a narrow verdant peninsula, which, as you may remember, had first caught my eye on approaching Vévey, as the very spot that a hunter of the picturesque would like for a temporary residence. The distance was about a mile, and, the condition of the house excepted, a nearer view confirmed all our first impressions. It had been a small chateau, and was called Glayrole. It stands near the hamlet of St. Saphorin, which, both François and Jean maintain, produces the best wines of Vaud, and, though now reduced to the condition of a dilapidated farm-house, has still some remains of its ancient state. There is a ceiling, in the Ritter Saal, that can almost vie with that of the castle of Habsburg, though it is less smoked. The road, more resembling the wheel-track of a lawn than a highway, runs quite near the house on one side, while the blue and limpid lake washes the foot of the little promontory.




James Fenimore Cooper

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