Autumn Impressions of the Gironde

Autumn Impressions of the Gironde

I. Giberne Sieveking
I. Giberne Sieveking

Author: Sieveking, I. Giberne (Isabel Giberne)
France — Description and travel
Autumn Impressions of the Gironde


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THE TIMES says:—
“Few among the numerous books dealing with the Russian Empire which have appeared of late years will be found more profitable than Baron von der Brüggen’s ‘Das Heutige Russland,’ an English version of which has now been published. The impression which it produced in Germany two years ago was most favourable, and we do not hesitate to repeat the advice of the German critics by whom it was earnestly recommended to the notice of all political students. The author’s reputation has already been firmly established by his earlier works on ‘The Disintegration of Poland’ and ‘The Europeanization of Russia,’ and in the present volume his judgment appears to be as sound as his knowledge is unquestionable.”


Autumn Impressions
of the Gironde

“Memoir and Letters of Francis W. Newman,” and
“A Turning Point of the Indian Mutiny.”
Once or twice, in every life—it may be in one form, it may be in another—there comes one day the possibility of a glimpse through the Magic Gates of Idealism. Some of us are not close enough to the opening gates to catch a sight of what lies beyond, but in the eyes of those who have seen—there is from that moment an ineffaceable, unforgettable longing.

Digby, Long & Co.
18, Bouverie Street, Fleet Street, E.C.

The Country of Many Ideals


To each man or woman of us there is the Country of our Ideals. The ideals may be newly aroused; they may be of long standing. But some time or other, in some way or other, there is the country; there is the place; there is the sunny spot in our imagination-world which calls to us—and calls to us in no uncertain voice.
It is true we are not always susceptible to that call: it is true we are not always responsive, but it is there all the same. Sometimes there comes to us a day when that “call” is insistent, all-compelling, irresistible; a day in which it sounds with indescribable music, indescribable vibration, through that inner world into which we all go now and again, when days are monotonous or depressing.
It is impossible to conjecture why some country, some place, some woman, should make that indescribable appeal which lays a hand on the latch of those gates leading to that world of imagination which exists in most of us far, far below the placid, shallow waters of conventionalism. It is impossible to conjecture when or where the voice and the call will sound in our ears. The man who hears it will recognise what it means, but will in no way be able to account for it.
He will only know with what infinite satisfaction he is sensible of the touch which enables him to “slip through the magic gates,” as a great friend once expressed it, into the world of Idealism, of Imagination.
True, the pleasure, the satisfaction, is elusive. He can lay no hand upon those wonderful moments which come thus to him. Even before he is aware that they have begun, he is conscious that they are already slipping out of his grasp.
What play has ever shown this more clearly than Maeterlinck’s “Blue Bird”? Though the children go from glory to glory of lustrous imagination, though they can go back to the land of Old Memories, to the land of the Future, yet they cannot stay there. Though they see and rejoice to the full in the “Blue Bird,” the spirit of Happiness, yet that one soft stroking of its feathers is all that is possible before it flies away. For every Ideal is winged: every Conception of Happiness but a passing vision. We have but to attempt to grasp them to find their elusiveness is a fact from which we cannot get away.
For me, the France about which I have written in the following pages is a country which calls to me from the world of my ideals, from the world of my imagination. From across the seas that call stirs me and thrills me indescribably. It is not the France of the Parisian; it is not the France of the automobilist; it is not the France of the Cook’s tourist. It is the France upon whose shores one steps at once into the land of many ideals.
I should like here to thank three friends, Messieurs Henri Guillier, Goulon, and E. G. Sieveking, who have most kindly given me permission to print their photographs of the part of France through which I travelled, and more than all, the greatest friend of all, who alone made the journey possible.
I. Giberne Sieveking.

Autumn Impressions
of the Gironde


“Mails first!” shouted the captain from the upper deck, as the steamer from Newhaven brought up alongside the landing stage at Dieppe, and the eager flow of the tide of passengers, anxious to forget on dry land how roughly the “cradle of the deep” had lately rocked them, was stayed.
I looked round on the woe-begone faces of those who had answered the call of the sea, and whose reply had been so long and so wearisome to themselves. Why is it that a smile is always ready in waiting at the very idea of sea-sickness? There is nothing humorous in its presentment; nothing in its discomfort to the sufferers; but yet to the bystander it invariably presents the idea of something comic, and, to the man whose inside turns a somersault at the first lurch of the wave against the side of the steamer, mal-de-mer seems both a belittling, as well as a very uncomfortable, part to play!
At Dieppe the train practically starts in the street; and while it waited for its full complement of passengers, two or three countrywomen came and knocked with their knuckles against the sides of the carriages, and held up five ruddy-cheeked pears for sale. (One uses the term “ruddy-cheeked” for apples, so why not for pears, which shew as much cheek as the former, only of a different shape?)
The Dining-Car Service of the “Chemin de fer de L’Ouest,” at Dieppe airs some delightful “English” in its advertisement cards. For instance: “A dining-car runs ordinary with the follow trains.” “Second and Third Class passengers having finished their meals can only remain in the Dining-Car until the first stopping place after the station at which a series of meals terminates and if the exigencies of the service will permit.” “Between meals.—First class passengers have free use of the Restaurant at any time, and may remain therein during the whole or part of the journey, if the exigencies of the service will permit, and notably before the commencement of the first series of meals and after the last one.” “Second and Third Class passengers can only be admitted to that section of the Restaurant which is very clearly indicated (sic) for their use, for refreshments or the purchase of provisions between two consecutive stopping points only. All Second and Third Class passengers infringing these conditions must pay the difference from second or third to first class for that part of the journey effected in the Dining-Car in infraction (sic) with the regulations.” There is also this very tantalus-like notification: “Various drinks as per tariff exhibited in the cars!” One half expects to see this followed by: “Persons are requested not to touch the exhibits!”

Beyond Dieppe the country is mostly divided up into squares, flanked by rows of trees, looking in the distance more like rows of ninepins than anything else. From time to time, along the line, we passed cottages, in front of which stood a countrywoman in frilled cap and blue skirt, “at attention,” as it were, holding in her hand, evidently as a badge of office and signal to our engine-driver, a round stick, sometimes red, sometimes purple.
Some of these signallers stood absorbed in the importance of the work in hand, (or rather stick in hand), but others had an eye to the main chance of their own households, which was being enacted in the cottage behind them, whether it concerned culinary arrangements or the goings-on of the children, and while she wielded the batôn in the service of her country, she minded (as we have been so often assured is woman’s distinctive, though somewhat narrowed, province!) things of low estate—such as her saucepan, her pot-au-feu, her baby.

In the far corner of our carriage, in black beaver, cassock and heavy cloak, with parchment-like countenance, much-lined brow, and controlled mouth, sat a young curé. He was engaged in saying a prolonged “Office,” but this did not hinder him from taking occasionally, “for his stomach’s sake, and his other infirmities,” a little snuff from time to time.
We were bound for Paris, en route for Arcachon. The train, as it went along, disturbed crowds of finches, and amongst them here and there a large sort of bird with black head and wings and white back, which I could not identify, though it seemed to belong to the crow tribe, to judge by the shape of its body and manner of its flight.
From time to time we passed little sheltered villages: quiet, grey-roofed, sentinelled by the inevitable poplar, and traversed by a little softly-shining stream. The meadows were full of soft, feathery-plumaged trees, of all shades of delicate tints; from the yellow tint of the evening primrose to the pink of the campion, and the shade of a robin’s breast. An old countrywoman in a full satiny skirt, carrying a long pole over her shoulder, was striding energetically across a field as we passed.
How one country gives the lie to another which holds as a dictum—immutable, irreversible—that outdoor labour is not possible for women! All over France men and women share equally the toil of the fields, and no one can say that it has not developed a strong, healthy type of woman, nor that the work is not effectively done. In some places I even saw women at work on the railway lines.
A few miles farther on we came upon an orchard of leafless fruit-trees sprawling across a soft green slope; behind them, a little forest of pine trees, their bare trunks chassez-croisezing against a pale saffron sky as we whirled by. Gnarled willows, with a diaphanous purple haze upon their bare boughs, came into sight, a goat quietly grazing at their roots; little meandering streams pottering quietly along between willow trees; here and there splendid old slated-roofed farm-houses, some with climbing trees trained up the front in regular, parallel lines.
Soon little plantations appeared, covered over with diminutive vines trailed up stout, white sticks; at a little distance they looked like clusters of dried red-brown leaves tied up by the stem, and drooping at the top. Seen in the gloom, from a little distance in the train, these lines of petits vignoles looked like a detachment of foot soldiers marching in file, with rifle on shoulder. We had, of course, come just too late for the vintage; the day of the vines was over for this year.
Now and again we caught sight of long strips of some vivid green plant, unknown to me, but resembling nothing so much as a certain delicious chicory and cream omelet on which we had regaled ourselves at Paris! Magpies, here and there, fluttered over the white stretch of sandy road, giving the effect of black letter type on a dazzling white page of paper.
An old woman in a blue skirt presented, as she bent over the stubble, a sort of counter-paned back, patched with all sorts of different coloured pieces of cloth: a little further on, a man, in white apron and bib, was strolling along a furrow scattering handfuls of what looked like white flour from a basket slung over his left arm. Up a winding country road wound groups of blue-smocked villagers; the women frilled-capped, the men baggily-trousered. Under the roofs of some of the cottages were hanging bunches of some herb or other to dry. At the corner of the road a picturesque blue cart was lying on its side, making a useful bit of local colour, though passé as regards utilitarian purposes. On the higher ground were windmills, dotted about in profusion: some of them had taken up a position on the top of some pointed cottage roof.
Over some of the cultivated strips of land were placed, at intervals, sticks with what suggested a touzled head of hair, but which was in reality composed of loose strands of straw. Along the sides of these strips lie citronnes (which, on mature acquaintanceship with the district, I find are a sort of vegetable used largely in soup) strewn loosely and carelessly about on the ground to ripen. The trees not far from St. Pierre des Corps seem a great deal infested by various kinds of fungi: that kind, whose scientific name I forget, which grows bunchily, in shape like a bird’s nest, and which give a sort of uncombed appearance to the branches.
We had intended, originally, to stop at Tours for the night but, finding that our doing so would involve two changes, we altered our minds, and determined to go straight on to Bordeaux. Then ensued the enormous difficulty of rescuing our luggage; for, as everyone who has travelled much abroad knows, the “red tape” which is always tied, with great outward ceremony and pomp of circumstance, round one’s goods and chattels when travelling by train, is exceedingly difficult to undo, and especially so at short notice.
However, my companion plunged promptly in medias res when, at the Junction, the train allowed us a few minutes on the loose, and we contrived to get our luggage out of the consignment labelled for Tours—though it was at the very bottom of all the other trunks—and transferred into the Bordeaux train, while I secured from the buffet a basket of pears, some rolls and cold chicken, flanked by a bottle of vin ordinaire. And, while on the subject of vin ordinaire, though there is an old, well-worn saying to the intent that “good wine needs no bush,” yet I cannot help planting a little shrub to the honour of the wine of the country in the fair country of the Gironde.
Without exception, I found it excellent, and I can say in all sincerity, that I do not desire a better meal or better wine to wash it down, while travelling, than is put before one in the restaurants of Bordeaux and the neighbourhood, especially in the country villages. Seldom have I spent happier meal-times than were those I passed opposite the two sentinelling bottles, one of white wine, the other of red, which flanked (without money and without price) the simple, excellently-cooked, second déjeuner or table d’hôte, whichever it might chance to be.
Dr. Thomas Fuller, of blessed memory, has left behind the wise injunction that no man should travel before his “wit be risen.” An addendum might very well be added that he should not travel before his judgment be up as well, and if Englishmen, who travel so much more in body than in spirit, always saw to it that both their “wit” and their judgment accompanied them to valet their mental equipment on their travels, their somewhat insular views as regards foreign ways of doing things, and foreign productions (such as the much, and unjustly, decried vin ordinaire, for instance,) would be brushed up and cleared of the cobwebs of tradition that are, in so many cases, over them even in the present year of grace.
To return, after this digression. After leaving Blois, the land was mapped out in larger squares of vineyards, in which a different kind of vine was growing: taller and bigger than the ones we had passed earlier in the day. These were dark brown in leafage, topped by a sort of flowery head. At the head of all the trees, that were denuded of foliage, there was a little round cap of yellow leaves, growing conically, and presenting a very curious effect when seen on the verge of a distant line of landscape. In France trees are assisted and instructed in their manner of growth.
Poitiers was our next stop; it was just growing dusk as we slowed into the station. Surely few cities offer more suggestive environment for mystery and romance than does Poitiers, seen by the fading light of a November afternoon. Dim heights surround the city; a broad, grey river, in parts a dazzle of steely points, flows round the outskirts; a glimpse is seen here and there, of spire, tower and battlements rising from out the midst of wooded heights; of grey, winding roads leading steeply down from the city on the hill, to the valleys and ravines beneath.
We had an additional adjunct to the general picturesqueness in a long procession of priests, some wearing birettas, some sombreros, accompanied by serried ranks of country-women in the long-backed white caps peculiar to the district, with long, stiff white strings hanging loose over the shoulder. It was evidently the end of some pilgrimage. Poitiers is a city of many priests and religious orders, both of men and women; of monasteries and nunneries.
When the procession had wended its way out of the station, the platform was appropriated by men carrying baskets of eggs, coloured with cochineal. Now, as everyone who has travelled much in this part of France is aware, really new-laid eggs, and matches, are apparently not indigenous, so to speak, for neither can be procured without enormous difficulty. I could have made quite a fortune over a few little boxes of English safety matches I possessed! Nevertheless, sufficiently ill-advised as to buy some of these eggs, we found that the colour was distinctly appropriate; for the red of the eggs’ autumn was upon them, both materially and metaphorically.
This information was conveyed to us promptly on “taking their caps off” (as a child once happily expressed it to me). Their “autumn” tints were very much “turned” indeed, and, in consequence, they speedily made their “last appearance on any stage” on the road far beneath! I remember on one occasion when remonstrating with the proprietor of a hotel, regarding the flavour of much keeping that hung about his new-laid eggs, he remarked that he only “took them as the poulets laid them down!”

Directly after quitting Poitiers the air began to feel sensibly warmer, until, when near Bordeaux, it became quite soft and balmy. At Libourne, opposite our carriage was a cattle truck with this label upon it—”Un cheval, trois chèvres, deux chiens, non accompagnées” and, while reading it, from the dark interior—for oral information—there came two or three pathetic little bleats! Were they, we wondered, from one of the three goats, who were no longer unaccompanied, but too closely in company with one of the dogs? Before we had time for more than momentary speculation, the double blast of the guard’s tin trumpet blared; there sounded his regulation short whistle, his hoarse cry of “En voiture,” the final wave, then the tip-tap of his sabots along the platform; a final glimpse of his flat white cap, swinging hooded cloak, and swaying, four-sided lantern, while he turned to grasp the handle of his van, as the engine, started at last by reiterated suggestion, moved slowly out of the station.

As the train had a prolonged wait at the first of the two Bordeaux stations, eventually we did not reach our end of Bordeaux till between ten and eleven o’clock at night, and far nearer to eleven than ten. Then ensued a long search for our possessions, sunk deep in the nether regions of the luggage van. When at length they were unearthed we started through darkened, noisy streets for our destination, which it seemed to take an eternity of jolting over rough cobbled stones to reach. However, we did reach it in course of time, and found the proprietor, a sleepy chambermaid, and a concierge in the hall of the hotel to receive us.
As one steps over the threshold of any hotel, whether it be at morning, noon or night, one is conscious I think, at once, of being greeted by a whiff of the hotel’s own local spiritua

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