Down The River Bordeaux
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
The river is so fine that, before going to Bayonne, I have come down as far as Royan. Ships heavy with white sails ascend slowly on both sides of the boat. At each gust of wind they incline like idle birds, lifting their long wings and showing their black bellies. They run slantwise, then come back; one would say that they felt the better for being in this great fresh-water harbor; they loiter in it and enjoy its peace after leaving the wrath and inclemency of the ocean.
The banks, fringed with pale verdure, glide right and left, far away to the verge of heaven; the river is broad like a sea; at this distance you might think you had seen two hedges; the trees dimly lift their delicate shapes in a robe of bluish gauze; here and there great pines raise their umbrellas on the vapory horizon, where all is confused and vanishing; there is an inexpressible sweetness in these first hues of the timid day, softened still by the fog which exhales from the deep river.
As for the river itself, its waters stretch out joyous and splendid; the rising sun pours upon its breast a long streamlet of gold; the breeze covers it with scales; its eddies stretch themselves, and tremble like an awaking serpent, and, when the billow heaves them, you seem to see the striped flanks, the tawny cuirass of a leviathan.
Indeed, at such moments it seems that the water must live and feel; it has a strange look, when it comes, transparent and somber, to stretch itself upon a beach of pebbles; it turns about them as if uneasy and irritated; it beats them with its wavelets; it covers them, then retires, then comes back again with a sort of languid writhing and mysterious lovingness; its snaky eddies, its little crests suddenly beaten down or broken, its wave, sloping, shining, then all at once blackened, resembles the flashes of passion in an impatient mother, who hovers incessantly and anxiously about her children, and covers them, not knowing what she wants and what fears.
Presently a cloud has covered the heavens, and the wind has risen. In a moment the river has assumed the aspect of a crafty and savage animal. It hollowed itself, and showed its livid belly; it came against the keel with convulsive starts, hugged it, and dashed against it, as if to try its force; as far as one could see, its waves lifted themselves and crowded together, like the muscles upon a chest over the flank of the waves passed flashes with sinister smiles; the mast groaned, and the trees bent shivering, like a nerveless crowd before the wrath of a fearful beast. Then all was hushed; the sun had burst forth, the waves were smoothed, you now see only a laughing expanse; spun out over this polished back a thousand greenish tresses sported wantonly; the light rested on it, like a diaphanous mantle; it followed the supple movements and the twisting of those liquid arms; it folded around them, behind them, its radiant, azure robe; it took their caprices and their mobile colors; the river meanwhile, slumbrous in its great, peaceful bed, was stretched out at the feet of the hills, which looked down upon it, like it immovable and eternal.
The boat is made fast to a boom, under a pile of white houses; it is Royan. Here already are the sea and the dunes; the right of the village is buried under a mass. of sand; there are crumbling hills, little dreary valleys, where you are lost as if in the desert ; no sound, no movement, no life; scanty, leafless vegetation dots moving soil, and its filaments fall like sickly hairs; small shells, white and empty, cling to these in chaplets, and, wherever the foot is set, they crack with a sound like a cricket's chirp; this place is the ossuary of some wretched maritime tribe.
One tree alone can live here, the pine, a wild creature, inhabitant of the forests and sterile coasts; there is a whole colony of them here; they crowd together fraternally, and cover the sand with their brown lamels; the monotonous breeze which sifts through them forever awakes their murmur; thus they chant in a plaintive fashion, but with a far softer and more harmonious voice than the other trees; this voice resembles the grating of the cicadas when in August they sing with all their heart among the stalks of the ripened wheat.
At the left of the village, a footpath winds to the summit of a wasted bank, among billows of standing grasses. The river is so broad that the other shore is not distinguishable. The sea, its neighbor, imparts its influence; its long undulations come one after another against the coast, and pour their little cascades of foam upon the sand; then the water retires, running down the slope until it meets a new wave ooming up which covers it, these billows are never wearied, and their come and go remind one of the regular breathing of a slumbering child. For night has fallen, the tints of purple grow brown and fade away. The river goes to rest in the soft, vague shadow; scarcely, at long intervals, a remnant glimpse is reflected from a slanting wave; obscurity drowns everything in its vapory dust; the drowsy eye vainly searches in this mist some visible point, and distinguishes at last, like a dim star, the lighthouse of Cordouan.
The next evening a fresh sea-breeze has brought us to Bordeaux. The enormous city heaps its monumental houses along the river like bastions; the red sky is embattled by their coping. They on one hand, the bridge on the other, protect, with a double line, the port where the vessels are crowded together like a flock of gulls; those graceful hulls, those tapering masts, those sails swollen or floating, weave the labyrinth of their movements and forms upon the magnificent purple of the sunset. The sun sinks into the river; the black rigging, the round hulls, stand out against its conflagration, and look like jewels of jet set in gold.
Around Bordeaux are smiling hills, varied horizons, fresh valleys, a river people by incessant navigation, a succession of cities and villages harmoniously planted upon the declivities or in the plains, everywhere the richest verdure, the luxury of nature and civilization, the earth and man vying with each other to enrich and decorate the happiest valley of France. Below Bordeaux a flat soil, marshes, sand; a land which goes on growing poorer, villages continually less frequent, era long the desert. I like the desert as well.
Pine woods pass to the right and to the left, silent and wan. Each tree bears on its side the scar of wounds where the woodmen have set flowing the resinous blood which chokes it; the powerful liquor still ascends into its limbs with the sap, exhales by its slimy shoots and by its cleft skin; a sharp aromatic odor fills the air.
Beyond, the monotonous plain of the ferns, bathed in light, stretches away as far as the eye can reach. Their green fans expand beneath the sun which colors, but does not cause them to fade. Upon the horizon a few scattered trees lift their slender columns. You see now and then the silhouette of a herdsman on his stilts, inert and standing like a sick heron. Wild horses are grazing half hid in the herbage. As the train passes, they abruptly lift their great startled eyes and stand motionless, uneasy at the noise that has troubled their solitude.
Man does not fare well here—he dies or degenerates; but it is the country of animals, and espe cially of plants. They abound in this desert, free, certain of living. Our pretty, cut-up valleys are but poor things alongside of these immense spaces, leagues upon leagues of marshy or dry vegetation, a level country, where nature, elsewhere troubled and tortured by men, still vegetates, as in primeval days, with a calm equal to its grandeur. The sun needs. these savannas in order properly to spread out its light; from the rising exhalation, you feel that the whole plain is fermenting under its force; and the eyes, filled by the limitless horizon, divine the secret labor by which this ocean of rank verdure renews and nourishes itself.