France - My Journey With Madame La Patronne
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
THE gist of French travel, to my thinking, lies in French companionship. Native eyes help to sharpen our own, and native wit enlivens every passing incident. Incomplete, indeed, had been my own survey of rural France without such aid and stimulus, and to no fellow-traveller do I owe more than to the patronne of a popular hotel " east of Paris." Our journey, more-over, was made under circumstances so novel and piquant that it stands by itself.
A wife at sixteen, afterwards mother of several children, and co-manageress with her husband of a large establishment by the time she was barely of age, Madame C 's aptitude for business and organization would have been remarkable in any other country. With Julius Cesar this clear-headed little Frenchwoman—at the time I write of middle-aged—could do three things at once ; that is to say, she could add up figures whilst giving orders to cook or chambermaids and answering miscellaneous questions put by English tourists. Interruptions that would prove simply maddening to other folks did not confuse or irritate her in the very least. Equally admirable was her dealing with practical details, the discriminating choice of subordinates, methodical conduct of daily routine, the throroughness of her supervision. Let it not for a moment be presumed that hotel-keeping and attention to maternal duties shut out other interests. To the utmost she had profited by an excellent middle-class education, was well versed in French classic literature, could enjoy good music and art, and on half-holidays would take her children to the magnificent town museum, pour former leurs idles, in order to cultivate their minds. That books were more to her than mere pastime the following incident will show.
We were one day discussing favourite authors, when she told me that during a recent convalescence she had re-read Corneille's plays right through, adding
And in each discovering new beauties ; it is the same with all great writers."
The patronne of the Ecu d'Or was not only charming company, but a devoted friend ; and when a few years ago I wanted a fellow-traveller, I luckily bethought myself of my actual hostess. The proposal was accepted. Monsieur, ever solicitous of his wife's pleasure, cheerfully undertook double duty for a fortnight, and in high spirits we set off.
It was, I believe, Madame C—'s first journey as a tourist since her wedding trip, often the only trip of a busy Frenchwoman's life. Perhaps had she overrun Europe after the manner of the modern globe-trotter, she would not have proved so genial and informing a companion. No one can really love France or appreciate French scenery like a native. A close and accurate observer, Madame C—, whilst perpetually increasing her own knowledge, was ever pointing out features I might otherwise have missed. Again, when she criticized, it was without the superciliousness of foreign observers. Meantime, the weather was perfect. Never had the Burgundian landscape looked richer or more glowing ; never were travellers more enticingly beckoned onward by vista after vista of vine-clad hills, sunlit valleys, and blue mountain range.
The kind of freemasonry that binds professional bodies together exists among members of what is call called in France haut commerce, or more important commercial ranks. On arriving at our destination in Savoy I soon discovered this, and that, as I have said, however delightful French travel may be with a sympathetic English friend, native companionship introduces a novel and highly agreeable element. The mistresses of the Écu d' Or and Lion Rouge now met for the first time, but their husbands had corresponded on business matters, their callings were identical, and general circumstances on a par. Children on both sides proved a further bond of union. Intercourse was straightway put on the footing of old acquaintanceship. As warm a welcome was extended to myself, and such friendliness amazingly transforms the atmosphere of a big hotel. Our hostess's husband being absent, her time was more taken up than usual, and the greater part of our own was spent abroad. We took our meals in the public dining-room, ordering what we wanted as any other tourists would have done, yet somehow we seemed and felt at home. And most instructive to me were the confabulations of the two ladies when leisure admitted of tea or coffee in Madame F----'s cosy little bureau, or office and parlour combined. What most struck me about these prolonged chats was the sense of parental responsibility shown by these busy mothers. Madame C- had three boys, Madame F- a marriageable daughter, the group forming an inexhaustible topic. The various aptitudes and temperaments of each child, the future, after most careful deliberation, marked out for them, were discussed again and again. One remark my friend of the Ecu d' Or made about her two elder sons impressed me much, evincing, as it did, a painstaking study of character from the cradle upwards.
" My husband and I had wished to set up Pierre and Frédéric in business together," she said, " but we find as they grow older that natures so opposite as theirs would never harmonize. Some young people are improved by coming into contact with their antipodes, but the experiment would not answer with our boys. I have watched them both narrowly, and am convinced that they will be better apart."
No less circumstantial was the patronne of the Lion Rouge regarding her eighteen-year-old Marie.
As I listened I got no mere glimpse, but real insight into bourgeois ideals of the daughter, wife, mother, and very worthy ideals they were. Marie's education had been, first and foremost, practical. The practical element in a French lycée for girls is much more conspicuous than in our own high schools, and the lycée now has very largely supplemented the more restricted education of the convent school. Especially insisted upon in the curriculum are such subjects as book-keeping and domestic management, both highly important to a girl destined for active life. Trades as well as professions are often hereditary. Mademoiselle Marie had just returned from a year's stay in an English business house, and already took her turn at the desk. In due time she would replace the young lady caissière, or clerk, and most probably marry a hotel-keeper.
These maternal colloquies brought out more than one French characteristic very forcibly. In forecasting the future of their children, parents leave the least possible to chance, A happy-go-lucky system is undoubtedly better suited to the Anglo-Saxon temperament. The more methodical French mind does not rebel against routine. Inherited prudence, an innate habit of reasoning, avert such conflicts as under the same circumstances would inevitably occur among ourselves.
After discussing sons and daughters, the two ladies would discuss their husbands, or rather take each other and myself—into the happiest confidences. Madame C—, I knew well, owned a partner in every way worthy of her ; the same good fortune had evidently fallen to Madame F 's share. Hard were it to say which of the two waxed the more enthusiastic on the topic. Sentimentality is foreign to the national character, but these matrons, mothers of youths and maidens, now became tearfully eloquent. Glad indeed I felt that the master of the Lion Rouge remained absent. The excellent man in person must have proved a disillusion have fallen some-what short of his wife's description !
Many other suggestive conversations I heard in that little parlour, but I must now relate by far the most interesting particular of this journey---the incident, in fact, which made it worth narrating.
Like Falstaff, I ever—when possible take my ease at mine inn. Madame of the Ecu d'Or had mentioned this little weakness to Madame of the Lion Rouge, and accordingly the best rooms on the first floor were assigned to us, the choicest wines served. During our several days' stay we enjoyed not only the cordiality of acquaintance-ship, but all the comfort and luxury the hotel could afford. What was my dismay, on applying for our bill, to learn that none was forthcoming ! Quite useless for me to expostulate ! Monsieur C----- and Monsieur F— had transacted business together ; I was Madame C—'s friend. Both of us had been received, and could only be received, on the footing of welcome guests and old acquaintances.
Argument after argument I tried in vain. There remained nothing for me to do but accept such generous hospitality in the spirit with which it was accorded. To have acted otherwise would have in the last degree out-raged French susceptibilities. And afterwards, when asking my travelling companion how best to show my appreciation, her answer was characteristic.
" Send an English book, one of your own novels, to Mademoiselle Marie ; on no account anything more costly, or it would look like payment in kind." Which advice I followed.
Nor was our journey in Dauphiné without evidence of this freemasonry. The patronne of the Ecu d' Or seemed able to traverse France like the guest of Arab tribes, viceregally franked from place to place. As the sordid rather than the generous qualities of their compatriots are insisted upon by French novelists, such incidents are worth recording. On the whole, too, I am told on excellent authority that hotel-keepers in France, as a rule, do not make large fortunes. Their expenses are too great, and, excepting in large commercial centres and health resorts, their clientèle is not rich enough to admit of high charges. Only by dint of incessant attention to business and rigid economy can the bourgeois ideal be obtained retirement, a suburban villa, and a garden.
I here add that, apart from national cleverness and capacity, I think two circumstances greatly account for the success of commercial houses under feminine management. The first is the admirable clearness with which arithmetic is taught and the prominence given to book-keeping in girls' schools in France. The second is concentration of purpose, a single aim. The matron has in view her children and grandchildren ; the paid manageress her own independence. One and all have ever the future before them. They bend their undivided energies to the day's work, not for the sake of to-morrow's pleasure or relaxation, but of ultimate to-morrows, or aspirations inseparable from national character. Wealth beyond the dreams of avarice is not the dream of the French bourgeois ; instead, the modest existence assurée, a life free from pecuniary anxiety, advancing years spent in solvent dignity and comfort.