XIV. LADY MERCHANTS AND SOCIALIST MAYORS
Only three museums in France date prior to the Revolution, those of Rheims, founded in 1748, and of Dijon and Nancy, founded in 1787. The opening in Paris of the Museum Francais in 1792, consisting of the royal collections and art treasures of suppressed convents, was the beginning of a great movement in this direction. At Lille the municipal authorities first got together a few pictures in the convent of the Recollets, and Watteau the painter was deputed to draw up a catalogue. On the 12th May, 1795, the collection consisted of 583 pictures and 58 engravings. On the 1st September, 1801, the consuls decreed the formation of departmental museums and distribution of public art treasures. It was not, however, till 1848 that the municipal council of Lille set to work in earnest upon the enrichment of the museum, now one of the finest in provincial cities. The present superb building was erected entirely at the expense of the municipality, and was only opened two years ago. It has recently been enriched by art treasures worth a million of francs, the gift of a rich citizen and his wife, tapestries, faience, furniture, enamels, ivories, illuminated MSS., rare bindings, engraved gems. Before that time the unrivalled collection of drawings by old masters had lent the Lille museum a value especially its own.
The collections are open every day, Sundays included. Being entirely built of stone, there is little risk of fire. Thieves are guarded against by two caretakers inside the building at night and two patrols outside. It is an enormous structure, and arranged with much taste.
The old wall still encircles the inner town, and very pretty is the contrast of grey stone and fresh spring foliage; lilacs in full bloom, also the almond, cherry, pear tree, and many others.
Lille nowadays recalls quite other thoughts than those suggested by Tristram Shandy. It may be described as a town within towns, the manufacturing centres around having gradually developed into large rival municipalities. Among these are Tourcoing, Croix, and Roubaix, now more than half as large as Lille itself. I stayed a week at Lille, and had I remained there a year, in one respect should have come away no whit the wiser. The manufactories, one and all, are inaccessible as the interior of a Carmelite convent. Queen Victoria could get inside the monastery of the Grande Chartreuse, but I question whether Her Majesty would have been permitted to see over a manufactory of thread gloves at Lille!
Such jealousy has doubtless its reason. Most likely trade secrets have been filched by foreign rivals under the guise of the ordinary tourist. Be this as it may, the confection of a tablecloth or piece of beige is kept as profoundly secret as that of the famous pepper tarts of Prince Bedreddin or the life-sustaining cordial of celebrated fasters.
In the hope of winning over a feminine mind, I drove with a friend to one of the largest factories at Croix, the property of a lady.
Here, as at Mulhouse, mill-owners live in the midst of their works. They do not leave business cares behind them, after English fashion, dwelling as far away as possible from factory chimneys. The premises of Mme. C. are on a magnificent scale; all in red brick, fresh as if erected yesterday, the mistress's house - a vast mansion - being a little removed from these and surrounded by elegantly-arranged grounds. A good deal of bowing and scraping had to be got through before we were even admitted to the portress's lodge, as much more ceremonial before the portress could be induced to convey our errand to one of the numerous clerks in a counting-house close by. At length, and after many dubious shakes of the head and murmurs of surprise at our audacity, the card was transmitted to the mansion.
A polite summons to the great lady's presence raised our hopes. There seemed at least some faint hope of success. Traversing the gravelled path, as we did so catching sight of madame's coach-house and half-dozen carriages, landau, brougham, brake, and how many more! we reached the front door. Here the clerk left us, and a footman in livery, with no little ceremony, ushered us into the first of a suite of reception rooms, all fitted up in the modern style, and having abundance of ferns and exotics.
At the end of the last salon a fashionably dressed lady, typically French in feature, manners and deportment, sat talking to two gentlemen. She very graciously advanced to meet us, held out a small white hand covered with rings, and with the sweetest smile heard my modestly reiterated request to be allowed a glimpse of the factory. Would that I could convey the gesture, expression of face and tone of voice with which she replied, in the fewest possible words!
After that inimitable, unforgettable "Jamais, jamais, jamais!" there was nothing to do but make our bow and retire, discomfiture being amply atoned by the little scene just described.
We next drove straight through Lille to the vast park or Bois, as it is called, not many years since acquired by the town as a pleasure-ground. Very wisely, the pretty, irregular stretch of glade, dell and wood has been left as it was, only a few paths, seats and plantations being added. No manufacturing town in France is better off in this respect. Wide, handsome boulevards lead to the Bois and pretty botanical garden, many private mansions having beautiful grounds, but walled in completely as those of cloistered convents. The fresh spring greenery and multitude of flowering trees and shrubs make suburban Lille look its best; outside the town every cottage has a bit of ground and a tree or two.