I.

 

ONE of the first was that of a perfect day on the coast of Normandy - -a warm, still Sunday in the early part of August. From my pillow, on waking, I could look at a strip of blue sea and a section of white cliff. I observed that the sea had never been so brilliant, and that the cliff was shining like the coast of Paros. I rose and came forth with the sense that it was the finest day of summer, and that one ought to do something uncommon by way of keeping it. At Etretal it was uncommon to take a walk; the custom of the country is to lie all day upon the pebbly strand watching, as we should say in America, your fellow boarders. Your leisurely stroll, in a scanty sheet, from your bathing cabin into the water, and your trickling progress from the water back into your cabin, form, as a general thing, the sum total of your peregrination. For the rest you remain horizontal, contemplating the horizon. To mark the day with a white stone, therefore, it was quite sufficient to stretch my legs. So I climbed the huge grassy cliff which shuts in the little bay on the right (as you lie on the beach, head upward), and gained the bleak white chapel of Notre Dame de la Garde, which a lady told me she was sure was the original of Matthew Arnold's "Little Grey Church on the Windy Hill." This is very likely; but the little church today was not grey; neither was the hill windy.

I had occasion, by the time I reached the summit, to wish it had been. Deep, silent sunshine filled the air, and the long grass of the downs stood up in the light without a tremor. The downs at Etretal are magnificent, and the way they stretched off toward Dieppe, with their shining levels and their faintly-shaded dells, was in itself an irresistible invitation. On the land side they have been somewhat narrowed by cultivation; the woods, and farms, and grain fields here and there creep close enough to the edge of the cliff almost to see the shifting of the tides at it's base. But cultivation in Normandy is itself picturesque, and the pedestrian rarely need resent it's encroachments. Neither walls nor hedges or fences are anywhere visible; the whole land lies open to the breezes and to his curious footsteps. This universal absence of barriers gives an air of vastness to the landscape, so that really, in a little French province, you have more of the feeling of being in a big country than on our own huge continent, which bristles so unconsciously with prohibitory rails and stone-piles. Norman farmhouses, too, with their mossy roofs and their visible beams making all kinds of triangles upon the ancient plaster of their walls, are very delightful things. Hereabouts they have always a dark little wood close beside them; often a chénaie, as the term is - -a fantastic little grove of tempest-tossed oaks. The trees look as if, some night, when the sea-blasts were howling their loudest and their boughs were tossing most wildly, the tumult had suddenly been stilled and they had stopped short, each in the attitude into which the storm was twisting it. The only thing the storm can do with them now is to blow them straight. The long, indented coast line had never seemed to me so charming. It stretched away into the light haze of the horizon, with such lovely violet spots in it's caves and hollows, and such soft white gleams on it's short headlands - -such exquisite gradations of distance and such capricious interruptions of perspective - -that one could only say that the land was really trying to smile as hard as the sea. The smile of the sea was a positive simper. Such a glittering and twinkling, such a softness and blueness, such tiny little pin-points of foam, and such delicate little wrinkles of waves - -all this made the ocean look like a flattered portrait.

The day I speak of was a Sunday, and there were to be races at Fécamp, ten miles away. The agreeable thing was, of course, to walk to Fécamp, over the grassy downs. I walked and walked, over the levels and the dells, having land and ocean quite to myself. Here and there I met a shepherd, lying flat on his stomach in the sun, while his sheep, in extreme dishabille (shearing time being recent), went huddling in front of me as I approached. Far below, on the blue ocean, like a fly on a table of lapis, crawled a little steamer, carrying people from Etretal to the races. I seemed to go much faster, yet the steamer got to Fécamp before me. But I stopped to gossip with a shepherd on a grassy hillside, and to admire certain little villages which are niched in small, transverse, seaward-sloping valleys. The shepherd told me that he had been farm-servant to the same master for five-and-thirty years - -ever since the age of ten; and that for thirty-five summers he had fed his flock upon those downs. I don't know whether his sheep were tired of their diet, but he professed himself very tired of his life. I remarked that in fine weather it must be charming, and he observed, with humility, that to thirty-five summers there went several rainy days.