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Chapter 27

LETTER XXVII.

Departure from Vévey.—Passage down the Lake.—Arrival at Geneva.—Purchase of Jewellery.—Leave Geneva.—Ascent of the Jura.—Alpine Views.—Rudeness at the Custom-house.—Smuggling.—A Smuggler detected.—The second Custom-house.—Final View of Mont Blanc.—Re-enter France.—Our luck at the Post-house in Dôle.—A Scotch Traveller.—Nationality of the Scotch.—Road towards Troyes.—Source of the Seine.


Dear ——,

Notwithstanding all the poetry of our situation, we found some of the ills of life in it. A few light cases of fever had occurred among us, which gave reason to distrust the lake-shore at this late season, and preparations were accordingly made to depart. Watching an opportunity, the skiff of honest Jean was loaded with us and our effects to the water's edge, and we embarked in the Leman, as she lay-to, in one of her daily trips, bidding a final adieu to Vévey, after a residence of about five weeks.

The passage down the lake was pleasant, and our eyes rested on the different objects with melancholy interest, for we knew not that they would ever be again looked upon by any among us. It is an exquisite lake, and it grows on us in beauty each time that we look at it, the surest sign of perfection. We reached Geneva early, and took lodgings at l'Ecu, in season for the ladies to make some purchases. The jewellery of this town is usually too tempting to be resisted by female self-denial, and when we met at dinner, we had a course of ear-rings, chains and bracelets served up, by a succession of shopmen, who understand, as it were by instinct, the caprices of the daughters of Eve. One of the party had taken a fancy to a pair of unfinished bracelets, and had expressed her regrets that she could not carry them with her. "Madame goes to Paris?" "Yes." "If she will leave her address, they shall be sent to her in a month." As we were strangers in France, and the regulation which prevented travellers from buying articles of this sort for their personal use, however necessary, has always appeared to me inhospitable, I told the man that if delivered in Paris, they should be received, and paid for. The bargain was made, and the jewels have already reached us. Of course I have asked no questions, and am ignorant whether they came by a balloon, in the luggage of an ambassador, or by the means of a dog.

The next day it rained tremendously; but having ordered horses, we left Geneva in the afternoon, taking the road to Ferney. Not an individual of the whole party had any desire to visit the chateau, however, and we drove through the place on a gallop. We took French post-horses at the foot of the Jura, where we found the first post-house, and began to climb the mountains. Our party made a droll appearance just at that moment. The rain was falling in torrents, and the carriage was dragging slowly through the mud up the long winding ascent. Of course the windows were shut, and we were a sort of full-dress party within, looking ridiculously fine, and, from time to time, laughing at our silly appearance. Everybody was in travelling dresses, jewellery excepted. The late purchases, however, were all on our persons, for we had been told they would certainly be seized at the custom-houses, if left in their boxes in the trunks. The douaniers could tell a recent purchase by instinct. Accordingly, all our fingers were brilliant with rings, brows glittered with ferronières, ear-rings of the newest mode were shining beneath travelling caps and hats, and chains abounded. I could not persuade myself that this masquerade would succeed, but predicted a failure. It really appeared to me that so shallow a distinction could avail nothing against harpies who denied the right of strangers to pass through their country with a few purchases of this nature, that had been clearly made for their own use. But, while the sumptuary laws of the custom-houses are very rigid, and set limits to the wants of travellers without remorse, like quarantine regulations, they have some rules that seem framed expressly to defeat their own ordinances.

The road led up the mountain, where a view that is much praised exists. It is the counterpart of that which is seen everywhere, when one touches on the eastern verge of the Jura, and first gets sight of Switzerland proper. These views are divided into that which embraces the valley of the Aar and the Oberland range, and this which comprises the basin of the Leman, and the mountains that surround it. Mont Blanc, of course, is included in the other. On the whole, I prefer the first, although the last is singularly beautiful. We got clear weather near the summit, and stopped a few minutes to dissect the elements of this scene. The view is very lovely, beyond a question; but I think it much inferior to that which has been so often spoken of between us above Vévey, notwithstanding Mont Blanc enters into this as one of its most conspicuous objects. I have, as yet, nowhere seen this mountain to so much advantage. In size, as compared with the peaks around it, it is a hay-stack among hay-cocks, with the advantage of being a pile of shining ice, or frozen snow, while everything else near it is granite. By insulating this mountain, and studying it by itself, one feels its mild sublimity; but still, as a whole, I give the preference greatly to the other view. From this point the lake is too distant, the shores of Savoy dwindle in the presence of their mightier neighbour, and the mysterious-looking Valais, which in its peculiar beauty has scarcely a rival on earth, is entirely hid from sight. Then the lights and shades are nearly lost from the summit of the Jura; and, after all, it is these lights and shades, the natural chiaroscuro, that finishes the picture.

We reached the first custom-house a little before sunset; but, as there was a reasonably good inn opposite, I determined to pass the night there, in order to be able to defend my rights against the myrmidons of the law at leisure, should it be necessary. The carriage was driven to the door of the custom-house, and we were taken into separate rooms to be examined. As for myself, I have no reason to complain; but the ladies were indignant at being subjected to a personal examination by a female harpy, who was equally without politeness and propriety. Surely France—polished, refined, intellectual France—cannot actually need this violation of decorum, not to say of decency! This is the second time that similar rudeness has been encountered by us, on entering the country; and, to make the matter worse, females have been the sufferers. I made a pretty vigorous remonstrance, in very animated French, and it had the effect of preventing a repetition of the rudeness. The men pleaded their orders, and I pleaded the rights of hospitality and propriety, as well as a determination not to submit to the insults. I would have made a détour of a hundred leagues to enter at another point in preference.

In the course of the conversation that succeeded, the officers explained to me the difficulties they had to contend with, which certainly are not trifling. As to station, they said that made no great difference, your duchess being usually an inveterate smuggler. Travellers are not content to supply their own wants, but they purchase for all their friends. This I knew to be true, though not by experience, you will permit me to say, the ambassador's bags, half the time, containing more prohibited articles than despatches. But, notwithstanding this explanation, I did not deem the case of one who bought only for himself the less hard. It is so easy to conceal light articles, that, except in instances where is reason for distrust, it were better to confide in character. If anything could induce me to enter seriously into the contraband, it would be such treatment.

The officers explained to me the manner in which smuggling is conducted. The usual mode is to cross the fields in the night; for when two custom-houses are passed, the jewellery may be put in a common trunk, and sent forward by the diligence, unless there is some particular grounds of suspicion. They know perfectly well, that bargains are constantly made in Geneva, to deliver purchases in Paris; but, with all their care and vigilance, the smugglers commonly succeed.

On a recent occasion, however, the officers had been more successful. A cart loaded with split wood (larch) had boldly passed the door of the douane. The man who drove it was a peasant, and altogether he appeared to be one driving a very common burthen to his own home. The cart, however, was stopped and the wood unloaded; while reloading, for nothing but wood was found, one stick attracted attention. It was muddy, as if it had fallen into the road. The mud, however, had a suspicious malice prepense air about it; it seemed as if it were smeared on, and by examining it closely, two seams were discovered, which it had been hoped the mud would conceal. The billet had been split in two, hollowed, and reunited by means of pegs. The mud was to hide these pegs and the seams, as I have told you, and in the cavity were found seventy gold watches! I saw the billet of wood, and really felt less resentment at the old virago who had offended us. The officers caught relenting in my eyes and inquired what I thought of it, and I told them that we were not muddy logs of larch.

The next morning we were off betimes, intending to push through the mountains and the custom-houses that day. The country was wild and far from fruitful, though there were bits of naked mountain, through which the road wound in a way to recall, on a greatly diminished scale however, that peculiar charm of the Apennines. The villages were clean but dreary, and nowhere, for leagues, did we see a country that was genial, or likely to reward agriculture. This passage of the Jura is immeasurably inferior to that by Salins and Neufchâtel. At first I was afraid it was my worn-out feelings that produced the impression; but, by close comparisons, and by questioning my companions, some of whom scarcely recollected the other road, I feel certain that such is the fact. Indeed it would be like comparing a finished painting to an esquisse.

We had not much trouble at the second custom-house, though the officers eyed our ornaments with a confiscating rapacity. For my part I took my revenge, by showing off the only ornament I had to the utmost. A—— had made me a present of a sapphire-ring, and this I flourished in all sorts of ways, as it might be in open defiance. One fellow had an extreme longing for a pretty ferronière, and there was a private consultation about it, among them, I believe; but after some detention, and a pretty close examination of the passports, we were permitted to proceed. If François smuggled nothing, it must have been for want of funds, for speculation is his hobby, as well as his misfortune, entering into every bone of his body.

We were all day busy in those barren, sterile, and unattractive mountains—thrice unattractive after the God-like Alps—and were compelled to dip into the night, in order to get rid of them. Once or twice on looking back, we saw the cold, chiseled peak of Mont Blanc, peering over our own nearer ridges; and as the weather was not very clear, it looked dim and spectral, as if sorry to lose us. It was rather late when we reached a small town, at the foot of the Jura, and stopped for the night.

This was France again,—France in cookery, beds, tone, and thought. We lost the Swiss simplicity (for there is still relatively a good deal of it), and Swiss directness, in politeness, finesse, and manner. We got "monsieur sait—monsieur pense—monsieur fera"—for "que voulez-vous, monsieur?"

We had no more to do with mountains. Our road next morning was across a wide plain, and we plunged at once into the undeviating monotony of French agriculture. A village had been burned, it was thought to excite political commotion, and the postilions began to manoeuvre with us, to curtail us of horse-flesh, as the road was full of carriages. It now became a matter of some moment to push on, for "first come, first served," is the law of the road. By dint of bribes and threats, we reached the point where the two great routes unite a little east of Dôle, before a train of several carriages, which we could see pushing for the point of junction with the same object as ourselves, came up. No one could pass us, on the same road, unless we stopped, and abandoning all idea of eating, we drove up to the post-house in Dôle, and preferred our claim. At the next moment, four other carriages stopped also. But five horses were in the stable, and seventeen were needed! Even these five had just arrived, and were baiting. Four of them fell to my share, and we drove off with many handsome expressions of regret at being obliged to leave but one for the four other carriages. Your travelling is an epitome of life, in which the lucky look upon the unlucky with a supercilious compassion.

A league or two beyond Dôle, we met two carriages coming the other way, and exchanged horses; and really I had some such generous feelings on the occasion, as those of a rich man who hears that a poor friend has found a bank note. The carriage with which we exchanged was English, and it had an earl's coronet. The pair within were man and wife; and some fine children, with an attendant or two, were in the one that followed. They were Scotch at a glance: the master himself wearing, besides the stamp of his nation on his face, a bonnet with the colours of his clan. There is something highly respectable in this Scotch nationality, and I have no doubt it has greatly contributed towards making the people what they are. If the Irish were as true to themselves, English injustice would cease in a twelvemonth. But, as a whole, the Irish nobles are a band of mercenaries, of English origin, and they prefer looking to the flesh-pots of Egypt, to falling back sternly on their rights, and sustaining themselves by the proud recollections of their forefathers. Indeed half of them would find their forefathers among the English speculators, when they found them at all. I envied the Scotchman his cap and tartan, though I dare say both he and his pretty wife had all the fine feelings that such an emblem is apt to inspire. Your earldoms are getting to be paltry things; but it is really something to be the chief of a clan!

You have travelled the road between Dôle and Dijon with me once, already, and I shall say no more than that we slept at the latter town. The next morning, with a view to vary the route, and to get off the train of carriages, we took the road towards Troyes. Our two objects were effected, for we saw no more of our competitors for post-horses, and we found ourselves in an entirely new country; but, parts of Champagne and the Ardennes excepted, a country that proved to be the most dreary portion of France we had yet been in. While trotting along a good road, through this naked, stony region, we came to a little valley in which there was a village that was almost as wild in appearance, as one of those on the Great St. Bernard. A rivulet flowed through the village, and meandered by our side, among the half sterile meadows. It was positively the only agreeable object that we had seen for some hours. Recollecting the stream at Tuttlingen, A—— desired me to ask the postilion, if it had a name. "Monsieur, cette petite rivière s'appelle la Seine." We were, then, at the sources of the Seine! Looking back I perceived, by the formation of the land, that it must take its rise a short distance beyond the village, among some naked and dreary-looking hills. A little beyond these, again, the streams flow towards the tributaries of the Rhone, and we were consequently in the high region where the waters of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean divide. Still there were no other signs of our being at such an elevation, except in the air of sterility that reigned around. It really seemed as if the river, so notoriously affluent in mud, had taken down with it all the soil.




James Fenimore Cooper

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