Vignettes of Travel
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VIGNETTES OF TRAVEL.
By Alf. Mattison.
I.—THE “VILLAIN” OF THE SAVOY ALPS.
After bidding a regretful adieu to Florence, the “city beautiful” of Tuscany, I took the midnight train to Paris and prepared myself for a long ride of some 900 miles. I had taken the Mont Cenis route, hence for a great portion of the journey our course lay through the Savoy Alps. Just before the first grey streaks of dawn appeared, the Italian youth who sat beside me pulled me out of my reverie by saying: “See, here’s Genoa!” Sure enough we were passing through the city that gave birth to the historic Christopher Golumbus. The reflected harbour lights dazzled fitfully in the heaving waters as the train skirted the shore, and yet another snapshot was photographed On memory’s tablets.
At dawn we were speeding over the plains of Liguria—on, on, past woods of pine and chestnut, past fruitful vineyards and gardens where the mulberry tree blossomed, and the peasant plied his trade of rearing the silkworms, whose products cover the nakedness of those alone who “toil not, neither do they spin.” Thus the long hours of the daytime sped away, and the scene changed as we entered upon the fringe of the Alpine mountains. Panting, our train took the steep inclines through the mountain cuttings. An eternal silence reigned oil all sides. No signs of life in this speeding panorama of wild Natures For 18 hours I had practically been alone in this compartment, and the journey but half accomplished! I was weary—lonely—and the awful solemnity of the lofty mountains weighed heavily upon my Spirits.
But it was unutterably grand when the sunset fell over the “snowcapped peaks and rocky, jagged heights. A sight for gods and men these eternal mountains, solemnly, majestically rearing themselves, as it were, to untold heights, seeming to kiss the very heavens. “That view of the Alps beats anything for wonders,” a friend had told me previously, and I learnt to share his opinion.
About the time when the “sentinel stars” had appeared, on the second night of my journey, and when we had passed into French territory, the train drew up at a small wayside station and half-a-dozen passengers entered. They were clad in coats of sheepskin, presenting an unkempt appearance. During the 20 miles or so we rode together they proved themselves very jolly, and the change from previous loneliness was thrive welcome. They offered the wine flask and long cheroots, in words not understood of me. I could only answer, “Non parle Francaise—Anglaise,” which, I may add to the uninitiated, meant to convey the words, nI cannot speak French—I am English.” This constituted my whole stock-in-trade of the language. When it is remembered that I had not spoken for 24 hours to a living soul, my readers will perceive how welcome was even the above fragment of speech.
Again I am alone. Sleep has been out of the question since leaving Florence. A strong feeling of feverishness has seized upon me; I am startled at the slightest unusual sound. My limbs tremble with the chilly mountain air, yet my head throbs and burns alternately. Again the train draws up. As a dark, slouching figure of a man enters the carriage—almost undistinguishable by the miserable light from an oil lamp—a quivering nervous fear possesses me. Into the opposite seat he flings himself. The train goes on its way.
If ever one’s mind had pictured what a murderous villain should be like, it would, I feel, fall far short of the appearance presented by the man before me. There he sat with his great cloak drawn around him; with his glittering eyes ‘neath bushy eyebrows staring fixedly at me, as a serpent transfixes his victim, sitting right there as if preparing for a spring upon his prey.
He speaks. I almost jump at the sound, and my tongue refuses to utter a word. Again he speaks. This time my stock phrase is requisitioned, and I answer in his language—” Non parle Francaise— Anglaise.” Scarce had the trembling words left my throat when up he sprang towards me. Words fail to describe what I experienced in those brief moments—it seemed an eternity. My overwrought brain worked with more than lightning rapidity. I saw myself a corpse hacked and torn by the assassin’s stiletto. Nay, even as he sprang towards me I distinctly felt the plunge of his knife in my heart, and felt the blood trickle down my hand as I drew it from the gaping wound.
Bless me, what is this? Can it be really so? There is no doubt about it, the erstwhile villain is shaking my hands t Instead of the bleeding corpse done, to death by the deadly steel, here is the villain actually embracing me in sheer delight, muttering the while, “Ah, vive la Anglaise,” to which I hastily replied, “Vive la Francaise.” I have somewhere heard that it is the best thing to humour a lunatic, and 1 suddenly thought it would be well to equally humour a villain. Hence I wrung his hands mightily in return, adding, “Francaise-Anglaise, paix.” (France and English, peace.)
The Villain: “Francaise-Anglaise proletariat, paix.”
The Victim: “Oui, oui, Anglaise-Francaise, proletariat, paix.”
Villain: “Vive la international proletariat.”
Now, I perceived suddenly that this man who expressed a desire for peace between English and French workmen, and at a time when relations were somewhat strained between the two countries, was an internationalist—a Socialist, in fact. So was I. To tell you how we harangued each other for the next two hours on the necessity of international relations amongst the workers of the world, and in our limited range of speech, would be only a matter of long repetition. Suffice to say that this pleasant and unexpected turn of events did much to restore the previous ill-effects of this long, dumb ride of over 35 hours’ duration. Best of all, here, amidst the loneliness of the mountain country, far from the haunts of city and town, I had met a man in whose heart burned a desire (happily growing apace) for “Peace on earth, goodwill towards men.”
When at last my new-found comrade reached his destination and alighted I felt a distinct pain at the thought that I might never see the fellow again. With another grip of the hands and a mutual cry of “Vive la Revolution Sociale” we parted. Somewhere, I guess, he is at work in the homesteads scattered amongst the mountains, spreading the message and helping the Cause “until the good day brings the best.”
Such is the association of ideas that, whenever I think of that memorable ride amid the lofty Alpine mountains, instantly the figure of my friend—” the Villain”—flashes across my mental vision, awakening yet another “ tender and kind old memory.”
II.—A NIGHT WITH THE PARIS REVOLUTIONISTS.
Danson’s la Carmagnole
Vive la Sonne,
Vive la Sonne,
Danson’s la Carmagnole
Vive la sonne—du canon.
The chorus to this far-famed revolutionary song was being sung as I, in company of a number of students from the Latin Quarter—in whose tents I was temporarily abiding—entered the portals of the “Maison du Peuple,” situated in the Montmatre quarter of Paris.
News had gone round the studios of the Quatrier Latine during the day that a great meeting of the Paris revolutionaries was to be held that evening in the famous “House of the People,” having for its object an expression of support and sympathy with Captain Dreyfus. We were told it would be a notable affair, inasmuch as Louise Michel —one of the foremost characters the Commune produced—was to address the meeting. This fact alone was sufficient reason for our presence there. .
Strangely enough, we had to pass through a posse of municipal police, drawn up in double file, and stretching a good distance from the building into the street. Our nationality being detected by the doorkeepers we were at once taken in hand and conducted through the densely-packed audience to the platform, with the repeated cry of “English friends.” There seated, I was enabled to survey the scene before me.
Seated at the platform table was the president of the meeting—a noted professor. On either side of him sat all the important leaders of the revolutionary groups of Paris, including a few Deputies of the French Chamber. Occupying, as it were, a place of honour on the President’s right, sat Louise Michel.
It is not easy to convey to those who have not rubbed shoulders with our French cousins in their homes and haunts any idea of their temperaments and varied traits, hence my pen picture of this night must necessarily lose its colouring. For it must be conceded that the French people do not err on the side of animation. Here, then, was a crowd of men and women rendering “La Carmagnole” not alone vocally but demonstratively, too. Be seated they could not; standing, they joined hands, waved arms, gesticulated, what time the very rafters of the room shook again.
The President arose at the finish of the hymn and announced the object of the assembly—to express, as aforesaid, revolutionary sympathy with Captain Dreyfus, who, said he, was being hounded down by the enemies of the people. It was not theirs to stand aside whilst any form of injustice was meted out by the bourgeoise. “But,” added he, “Louise Michel was present and would speak”—but here the President’s further words were lost in the fiery applause that went up from a thousand and one throats—applause that for long could not be quenched. Immovable, with stern-set countenance—almost repellant, one might add—the heroine of the Commune had previous to this outburst betrayed no expression. But now, a slight colour diffused the pale thin face, and she smiled.
“Whilst the first two speakers were on their feet the crowd were restless. They evidently desired to be moved by the utterances of Louise. Taking the hint, the previous speakers were brief. Needing no introduction by the President, Louise Michel stood, faced that unwieldy assembly and attempted to speak. Then it was that the spirit of the Revolution was in the air. Men and women embraced each other, hats were flung aloft, and we English wondered I Then in one corner of the room, where a crown of young women stood, arose the strains—the stirring strains—of the “ Marseillaise,” such as Frenchmen and women, fired with the true spirit of revolutionary change, alone ,can render this immortal hymn of freedom. The whole audience joined in the refrain. It was an experience alone worth journeying to Paris to hearken to, and I understood—dimly, perhaps—how great an influence this hymn had upon the events that crowded upon the days of that great Revolution which changed the whole course of European history.
The singing ending, it was now Louise Michel’s turn. Amid a great silence she began to speak, at first dealing with the true significance of the events that had called forth that meeting, and then, later, leading on to the general principles of the revolutionary movement, punctuating here and there expressions of opinion that called forth applause, which had to have its adequate expression. One could now feel the beating pulse, so to speak, of Louise and the responsive throbs of the assembly. I am wise enough not to attempt further description of the speech and its influence upon these men and women with their varying emotions, their laughter and tears, their expressions of hate and of love.
At last, completely overdone, the speaker sat down. No other speaker followed. Louise Michel had been enough. Again, the stirring strains of the “Marseillaise,” again the thunderous applause and exclamation, and then the gradual dispersion of this assembly to its varied quarters, with its knowledge of the task and its lessons.
Alfred Mattison, “Vignettes of Travel,” Amalgamated Engineers Monthly Journal, new series no. 23 (November, 1906): 16-20.