Towards The South Of France
( Originally Published 1938 )
The Gare-du-Quai-d'Orsay, one of the pleasantest stations either in Paris or in London, is adorned in a style of frolic heaviness, of rhetorical and pompous gaiety, which belongs on the one hand to France, on the other to a more complacent age than ours. It looks, however, just as good as new. The whirls and convolutions of the interior, at once sober and festive, like the music of military bands, are as unblemished by the grime of engines as they were in that dear de-parted yesteryear, the melting of whose snows still chills our dogged and reluctant feet. Some logical Frenchman, having perceived that the one condition which can ensure the tranquillity and good order of a station is that there should be no trains in it, decreed that these tiresome appendages to rail-way architecture, if they could not be dispensed with altogether, should at least be banished to a region where they would be practically innocuous. At this station, therefore, in the diplomatic manner appropriate to the locality, the real business is done underground. What takes place on the surface is only the polite reflection of the fundamental haste and muddle. If you are bound for Brittany or Perigord, or for Languedoc and Roussillon, as I was, you skate across a vast expanse of floor, the size of a hippodrome, or of the largest salon of the newest Corner House, to visit cloakroom and tobacco-stall, before descending to the half-lit dungeon where those relegated dragons snort, fume, or lie passive to await the tribute of your person.
"Fate cannot harm me," said the poet: "I have dined today." This observation is informed by a wisdom of which the traveller, who is otherwise exposed to sudden apprehensions concerning the whereabouts of toothbrush and pass-port, does well to avail himself. With mind, nerves, and body soothed, composed, sustained by the influence of a fine dark onion soup, the colour of a rich brown sauce; an excellent chicken and small new potatoes, infants of a premature birth; a compote of pears that one could imagine had been pickled in some kind of soda-water which was its own elixir of eternal youth, so that its sparkle still lived in the fibres of the fruit, investing them with its pricking flavour; thus charmed, comforted, and caressed within by the material presence of these good gifts of the earth and products of man's skill; the imagination still warmed and flattered by their lingering fragrance, and those organs which the Chinese believe to be the seat of the affections bathed by their sweet essences, lapped by a private ocean of rich juices; thus pampered, cosseted, and, as it were, inwardly cushioned against the joltings of unease, I settled down for the night and the journey south. Through a thick cloud of indifference I was conscious that outside and above me in the streets the lamp-light glistened on wet surfaces, and people hurried in and out of taxis, while around me the air was flat and heavy with that sense of futility which immediately precedes departure; that a few people drooped out of windows or stood listlessly on the platform, rocking on their heels. I heard a voice announce through an amplifier a magnificently sonorous list of names: LIMOGES, CAHORS, MONTAUBAN, TOULOUSE, CARCASSONNE, NARBONNE, PERPIGNAN. . . . The guard, with a fine sense of bathos, blew an absurd, shrill note on his petty hunting-horn; and, in that moment of pleasant shock which comes when one is compelled to recognize the promise of arrival that is inherent in departure, but which one has up till now refused to tempt fate by anticipating, I discovered that the train was moving.
But in this world the two evils of politics and anti-climax are never far distant. Either may descend upon one at any time, and in this case the two arrived together. The train drew to a hesitating standstill at a station whose existence I had overlooked, and was immediately beset by a throng of detestable invaders, who laughed, shouted, turned the lights on, talked in four languages, and fell over luggage. Blinking owlishly in the rudely recreated dusty glare, I found that I now shared my compartment, this bare and unlovely box, which, like a hermit's cell, was susceptible of no virtue save privacy, and in which I was condemned to spend the next eleven hours, with a Hungarian, a Czech, a Belgian, and two Englishmen. Along the corridor passed a constant trickle of outlanders, a sleek Indian, an American or two, a man who looked like a Scandinavian. The new arrivals formed an international clique, a group as conspicuously distinct as myself from the decent French, of the sort who are always on their way to attend the funerals of their relatives, who were the other passengers.
My travelling companions were merry, sang songs, laughed a good deal over the difficulty of exchanging ideas. Presently they opened suitcases and parcels, brought out long loaves, butter, garlic sausage, hunks of cheese and bacon. A bottle was passed from hand to hand; each drank from it; the last man, he who sat in the corner, a big fellow, immensely muscular, a great talker, drained it, gained the attention of his audience for a trick about to be performed, and hurled it neatly through the open window. Everybody listened for the resulting crash, and greeted it with a smile of approval.
This performance was repeated several times. Good fellowship increased. A jollity, however, which even in these conditions seemed disproportionate to any ordinary occasion, hinted at a destination other than Toulouse or Brive, and a mission not connected with the sale of underwear or the erection of a refrigerating plant. The young Englishman who sat beside me, nervous, sensitive, the type of which fanatics, devotees, are made, having opened with a feint of taciturnity, talked readily enough. His party was proceeding under the orders of a political organization to Madrid. From Perpignan they would be taken across the border in lorries. A similar party travelled by this train nearly every day. And were there many Englishmen of his persuasion in Spain already? He thought about a thousand. Complete arrangements existed for transport, even for leave. Most countries had their own battalions in Spain, to which their nationals could be drafted on arrival. I congratulated him on the apparent excellence of the organization which made these arrangements. It was the finest organization in the world, he said, and I should see that they would beat the lot of them.
The world's inhabitants may be divided into two classes: those who can sleep in trains, and those who resemble myself in this respect. After a long time the talk ceased, we turned the lights out, and settled down to get what rest we could. A Belgian, the best of fellows, was restrained by threats and tact from singing in the corridor. I dozed fitfully while the train rolled southward through the central plains of France. In the illusion that we were moving backwards which I felt when I closed my eyes, there was something beautifully symbolic of human progress, which sends young men whom an abundance of riches has deprived of any better occupation to cut each other's throats in a country that was more civilized two hundred years ago than it is today. In the night we stopped at Limoges, Brive. Rain splashed against the windows. All was dark; outside the carriage and at the centre of one's being was a hellish void. Towards morning, in the pale dawn, we stopped again at Montauban, then at Toulouse. Passengers bought wine and coffee. The Hungarian, who told me that he had served for four years with Roumanian troops against the Italians in the War, that he had subsequently worked in Berlin and Brussels, and that on getting his orders for Spain he had left the latter city without giving his employer notice or telling his wife where he was going, lest she should attempt to dissuade him from his purpose, gave me a cigar. The Belgian delivered a long rhetorical address in praise of wine, for the benefit of the grapeless Englishman. In Belgium they know nothing about wine, said the Hungarian: they only talk about it. The two young Englishmen sat silent, no longer stimulated by the novelty of garlic sausage.
But now the light was growing, and it was possible to see the landscape through which we were passing. I looked out of the window, and saw some dwarfish oaks, still bearing last year's withered leaf, a cypress, pink and ochre walls, a touch of pink, too, n the brownish grass, which looked burnt, as it does in autumn sometimes on an English down. A lorry ran beside us on a long straight road lined with planes. A light rain was falling, and a soft warm wind blew in at the open windows. Small square boxy houses, tiled roofs and shutters, a walled cemetery, more cypresses, a chateau, vines, and olives slipped by, their impact on the consciousness becoming inextricably confused with the taste of bread and chocolate and the broken remnants of a sleep-less night's imaginings. The plum and almond were already in full bloom here: one thought of the crazy sun-starved Northerner, Van Gogh, struggling desperately to hold the evanescent beauty of the almond blossom prisoner to his thick impasto, that first southern spring of his at Arles.
But as we entered the department of the Aude, between Villefranche-de-Lauragais and Castelnaudary, we ran into a mist. For a time it looked as if one had come all the way from London merely to see what Languedoc could do in imitation of a London fog. One looked anxiously out of the window, cursing those who had warned one of the uncertainty of the weather in the South of France, and hoping desperately that the sun would break through later to confound them. As we drew out of a place called Bram, an unlikely name in any language, I began to gather up my possessions. We passed more vineyards, a shed or two, an engine in a siding, and pulled into the station which was my destination as casually as if it had been any other place. I parted from my travelling companions in an atmosphere of flurry and goodwill, handshakes of an exaggerated cordiality and hasty snatching up of bags. But I had left something in the carriage: I went back for it, became involved in fresh farewells, and was nearly carried on to the next stop. I jumped from the train as it was starting. I had arrived at Carcassonne, a place by the sound of its name as improbable as Rocamadour or Tooting Bee, but which, like them, undoubtedly exists.