III.

 

IN a month of beautiful weather at Etretal, every day was not an excursion, but every day seemed indeed a picked day. For that matter, as I lay on the beach watching the procession of the easy-going hours, I took a good many mental excursions. The one, perhaps, on which I oftenest started was a comparison between French manners, French habits, French types, and those of my native land. These comparisons are not invidious; I don't conclude against one party and in favour of the other; as the French say, je constate simply. The French people about me were "spending the summer" just as I had so often seen my fellow countrymen spend it, and it seemed to me, as it had seemed to me at home, that this operation places men and women under a sort of monstrous magnifying glass. The human figure has a higher relief in the country than in town, and I know of no place where psychological studies prosper so as at the seaside. I shall not pretend to relate my observations in the order in which they occurred to me (or indeed to relate them in full at all); but I may say that one of the foremost was to this effect - -that the summer question, for every one, had been more easily settled than it usually is at home. The solution of the problem of where to go had not been a thin-petalled rose, plucked from among particularly sharp-pointed thorns. People presented themselves with a calmness and freshness very different from the haggard legacy of that fevered investigation which precedes the annual exodus of the American citizen and his family. This impression, with me, rests perhaps on the fact that most Frenchwomen turned of thirty - -the average wives and mothers - -are so comfortably fat. I have never seen such massive feminine charms as among the mature baigneuses of Etretal. The lean and desiccated person into whom a dozen years of matrimony so often converts the blooming American girl has no apparent correlative in the French race. A majestic plumpness flourished all around me - -the plumpness of triple chins and deeply dimpled hands. I mused upon it, and I concluded that it was the result of the best breakfasts and dinners in the world. It was the corpulence of ladies who are thoroughly well fed, and who never walk a step that they can spare. The assiduity with which the women of America measure the length of our democratic pavements is doubtless a factor in their frequent absence of redundancy of outline. As a "regular boarder" at the Hotel Blanquet - -pronounced by Anglo-Saxon visitors Blanket - -I found myself initiated into the mysteries of the French dietary system. I assent to the common tradition that the French are a temperate people, so long as it is understood in this sense - -that they eat no more than they want to. But they want to eat so much. Their capacity strikes me as enormous, and we ourselves, if we are less regulated, are certainly much more slender consumers.

The American breakfast has, I believe, long been a subject of irony to the foreign observer; but the American breakfast is an ascetic meal compared with the French déjeuner à la fourchette. The latter, indeed, is simply a dinner without soup; it differs neither generically nor specifically from the evening repast. If it excludes soup, it includes eggs, prepared in a hundred forms; and if it proscribes champagne, it admits beer in foaming pitchers, so that the balance is fairly preserved. I think it is rarely that an American will not feel a certain sympathetic heaviness in the reflection that a French family that sits down at half past eleven to fish and entrees and roasts, to asparagus and beans, to salad and dessert, and cheese and coffee, proposes to do exactly the same thing at dinner time. But we may be sure at any rate that the dinner will be as good as the breakfast, and that the breakfast has nothing to fear from prospective comparison with the dinner; and we may further reflect that in a country where eating is a peculiarly unalloyed pleasure it is natural that this pleasure should be prolonged and reiterated. Nothing is more noticeable among the French than their superior intelligence in dietary matters; every one seems naturally a judge, a dilettante. They have analysed tastes and savours to a finer point than we; they are aware of differences and relations of which we take no heed. Observe a Frenchman of any age and of any station (I have been quite as much struck with it in the very young men as in the old) as he orders his breakfast or his dinner at a Parisian restaurant, and you will perceive that the operation is much more solemn than it is apt to be in New York or in London. (In London, indeed, it is intellectually positively brutal.) Monsieur has, in a word, a certain ideal for that particular repast, and it will make a difference in his happiness whether the kidneys, for instance, of a certain style, are chopped to the ultimate or only to the penultimate smallness. His directions and admonitions to the waiter are therefore minute and exquisite, and eloquently accentuated by the pressure of thumb and forefinger; and it must be added that the imagination of the waiter is usually quite worthy of the refined communion thus opened to it.