XI. AN OLIVE FARM IN THE VAR
The friendly visit of a few Russian naval officers lately put the country into as great a commotion as a hostile invasion. I started southward from Lyons on the 12th October, 1893, amid scenes of wholly indescribable confusion; railway stations a mere compact phalanx of excited tourists bound for Toulon, with no immediate prospect of getting an inch farther, railway officials at their wits' end, carriage after carriage hooked on to the already enormously long train, and yet crowds upon crowds left behind. Every train was, of course, late; and on the heels of each followed supplementary ones, all packed to their utmost capacity. As we steamed into the different stations "Vive la Russie!" greeted our ears. The air seemed filled with the sound; never surely was such a delirium witnessed in France since the fever heat of 1789!
At Valence, Montelimar, Avignon, Arles, the same tumult reigned; but before reaching the second place, the regulation number of carriages, twenty-five, had been exceeded, and as hardly one per cent of the travellers alighted, we could only pass by the disconcerted multitudes awaiting places. And a mixed company was ours - the fashionable world, select and otherwise, the demi-monde in silks and in tatters, musicians, travelling companies of actors and showmen, decorated functionaries, children, poodles, all bound for the Russian fleet!
At Marseilles, a bitter disappointment awaited some, I fear, many. No sooner were we fairly within the brilliantly-lighted, crowded station, and before the train had come to a standstill, than a stentorian voice was heard from one end of the platform to the other, crying -
"LOOK TO YOUR PURSES!"
And as the gorged carriages slowly discharged their burden, the stream of passengers wending towards the door marked "Way out," a yet louder and more awe-inspiring voice came from above, the official being perched high as an orator in the pulpit, repeating the same words -
"ATTENTION A VOTRE PORTE-MONNAIE!"
The dismay of the thwarted pickpockets may be better imagined than described. Many, doubtless, had come from great distances, confident of a golden harvest. Let us hope that the authorities of Toulon were equally on the alert. Marseilles no more resembles Lyons, Bordeaux, Nantes, than those cities resemble each other. Less elegant than Lyons, less majestic than Bordeaux, gayer by far than Nantes, the capital of Southern France has a stamp of its own. Today, as three thousand years ago, Marseilles may be called the threshold of the East. In these hot, bustling, noisy streets, Paris is quiet by comparison; London a Trappist monastery! Orientals, or what our French neighbours call exotics, are so common that no one looks at them. Japanese and Chinese, Hindus, Tonquinois, Annamites, Moors, Arabs, all are here, and in native dress; and writing letters in the salon of your hotel, your vis-a-vis at the table d'hote, your fellow sightseers, east and west, to-day as of old, here come into friendly contact; and side by side with the East is the glowing life of the South. We seem no longer in France, but in a great cosmopolitan mart that belongs to the whole world.
The Marseillais, nevertheless, are French; and Marseilles, to their thinking, is the veritable metropolis. "If Paris had but her Cannebiere," they say, "she would be a little Marseilles!"
Superbly situated, magnificently endowed as to climate, the chef-lieu of the Bouches du Rhone must be called a slatternly beauty; whilst embellishing herself, putting on her jewels and splendid attire, she has forgotten to wash her face and trim her hair! Not in Horatian phrase, dainty in her neatness, Marseilles does herself injustice. Lyons is clean swept, spick and span as a toy town; Bordeaux is coquettish as her charming Bordelaise; Nantes, certainly, is not particularly careful of appearances. But Marseilles is dirty, unswept, littered from end to end; you might suppose that every householder had just moved, leaving their odds and ends in the streets, if, indeed, these beautifully-shaded walks can be so called. The city in its development has laid out alleys and boulevards instead of merely making ways, with the result that in spite of brilliant sky and burning sun, coolness and shadow are ever to be had. The Cannebiere, with its blue sky, glowing foliage and gay, nonchalant, heterogeneous crowds, reminds me of the Rambla of Barcelona. Indeed, the two cities have many points of resemblance. Marseilles is greatly changed from the Marseilles I visited twenty-five years ago, to say nothing of Arthur Young's description of 1789. The only advantage with which he accredited the city was that of possessing newspapers. Its port, he wrote, was a horsepond compared to that of Bordeaux; the number of country houses dotting the hills disappointingly small. At the present time, suburban Marseilles, like suburban London, encroaches year by year upon the country; another generation, and the sea-coast from Toulon to the Italian frontier will show one unbroken line of country houses. Of this no one can doubt who sees what is going on in the way of building.