CHAPTER XLVII. Queer European Manners
We spent a few pleasant restful days at Geneva, that delightful city where accurate time-pieces are made for all the rest of the world, but whose own clocks never give the correct time of day by any accident.
Geneva is filled with pretty shops, and the shops are filled with the most enticing gimacrackery, but if one enters one of these places he is at once pounced upon, and followed up, and so persecuted to buy this, that, and the other thing, that he is very grateful to get out again, and is not at all apt to repeat his experiment. The shopkeepers of the smaller sort, in Geneva, are as troublesome and persistent as are the salesmen of that monster hive in Paris, the Grands Magasins du Louvre--an establishment where ill-mannered pestering, pursuing, and insistence have been reduced to a science.
In Geneva, prices in the smaller shops are very elastic-- that is another bad feature. I was looking in at a window at a very pretty string of beads, suitable for a child. I was only admiring them; I had no use for them; I hardly ever wear beads. The shopwoman came out and offered them to me for thirty-five francs. I said it was cheap, but I did not need them.
"Ah, but monsieur, they are so beautiful!"
I confessed it, but said they were not suitable for one of my age and simplicity of character. She darted in and brought them out and tried to force them into my hands, saying:
"Ah, but only see how lovely they are! Surely monsieur will take them; monsieur shall have them for thirty francs. There, I have said it--it is a loss, but one must live."
I dropped my hands, and tried to move her to respect my unprotected situation. But no, she dangled the beads in the sun before my face, exclaiming, "Ah, monsieur CANNOT resist them!" She hung them on my coat button, folded her hand resignedly, and said: "Gone,--and for thirty francs, the lovely things--it is incredible!--but the good God will sanctify the sacrifice to me."
I removed them gently, returned them, and walked away, shaking my head and smiling a smile of silly embarrassment while the passers-by halted to observe. The woman leaned out of her door, shook the beads, and screamed after me:
"Monsieur shall have them for twenty-eight!"
I shook my head.
"Twenty-seven! It is a cruel loss, it is ruin-- but take them, only take them."
I still retreated, still wagging my head.
"MON DIEU, they shall even go for twenty-six! There, I have said it. Come!"
I wagged another negative. A nurse and a little English girl had been near me, and were following me, now. The shopwoman ran to the nurse, thrust the beads into her hands, and said:
"Monsieur shall have them for twenty-five! Take them to the hotel--he shall send me the money tomorrow-- next day--when he likes." Then to the child: "When thy father sends me the money, come thou also, my angel, and thou shall have something oh so pretty!"
I was thus providentially saved. The nurse refused the beads squarely and firmly, and that ended the matter.
The "sights" of Geneva are not numerous. I made one attempt to hunt up the houses once inhabited by those two disagreeable people, Rousseau and Calvin, but I had no success. Then I concluded to go home. I found it was easier to propose to do that than to do it; for that town is a bewildering place. I got lost in a tangle of narrow and crooked streets, and stayed lost for an hour or two. Finally I found a street which looked somewhat familiar, and said to myself, "Now I am at home, I judge." But I was wrong; this was "HELL street." Presently I found another place which had a familiar look, and said to myself, "Now I am at home, sure." It was another error. This was "PURGATORY street." After a little I said, "NOW I've got the right place, anyway ... no, this is 'PARADISE street'; I'm further from home than I was in the beginning." Those were queer names--Calvin was the author of them, likely. "Hell" and "Purgatory" fitted those two streets like a glove, but the "Paradise" appeared to be sarcastic.
I came out on the lake-front, at last, and then I knew where I was. I was walking along before the glittering jewelry shops when I saw a curious performance. A lady passed by, and a trim dandy lounged across the walk in such an apparently carefully timed way as to bring himself exactly in front of her when she got to him; he made no offer to step out of the way; he did not apologize; he did not even notice her. She had to stop still and let him lounge by. I wondered if he had done that piece of brutality purposely. He strolled to a chair and seated himself at a small table; two or three other males were sitting at similar tables sipping sweetened water. I waited; presently a youth came by, and this fellow got up and served him the same trick. Still, it did not seem possible that any one could do such a thing deliberately. To satisfy my curiosity I went around the block, and, sure enough, as I approached, at a good round speed, he got up and lounged lazily across my path, fouling my course exactly at the right moment to receive all my weight. This proved that his previous performances had not been accidental, but intentional.
I saw that dandy's curious game played afterward, in Paris, but not for amusement; not with a motive of any sort, indeed, but simply from a selfish indifference to other people's comfort and rights. One does not see it as frequently in Paris as he might expect to, for there the law says, in effect, "It is the business of the weak to get out of the way of the strong." We fine a cabman if he runs over a citizen; Paris fines the citizen for being run over. At least so everybody says--but I saw something which caused me to doubt; I saw a horseman run over an old woman one day--the police arrested him and took him away. That looked as if they meant to punish him.
It will not do for me to find merit in American manners-- for are they not the standing butt for the jests of critical and polished Europe? Still, I must venture to claim one little matter of superiority in our manners; a lady may traverse our streets all day, going and coming as she chooses, and she will never be molested by any man; but if a lady, unattended, walks abroad in the streets of London, even at noonday, she will be pretty likely to be accosted and insulted--and not by drunken sailors, but by men who carry the look and wear the dress of gentlemen. It is maintained that these people are not gentlemen, but are a lower sort, disguised as gentlemen. The case of Colonel Valentine Baker obstructs that argument, for a man cannot become an officer in the British army except he hold the rank of gentleman. This person, finding himself alone in a railway compartment with an unprotected girl--but it is an atrocious story, and doubtless the reader remembers it well enough. London must have been more or less accustomed to Bakers, and the ways of Bakers, else London would have been offended and excited. Baker was "imprisoned"--in a parlor; and he could not have been more visited, or more overwhelmed with attentions, if he had committed six murders and then-- while the gallows was preparing--"got religion"--after the manner of the holy Charles Peace, of saintly memory. Arkansaw--it seems a little indelicate to be trumpeting forth our own superiorities, and comparisons are always odious, but still--Arkansaw would certainly have hanged Baker. I do not say she would have tried him first, but she would have hanged him, anyway.
Even the most degraded woman can walk our streets unmolested, her sex and her weakness being her sufficient protection. She will encounter less polish than she would in the old world, but she will run across enough humanity to make up for it.
The music of a donkey awoke us early in the morning, and we rose up and made ready for a pretty formidable walk--to Italy; but the road was so level that we took the train.. We lost a good deal of time by this, but it was no matter, we were not in a hurry. We were four hours going to Chamb`ery. The Swiss trains go upward of three miles an hour, in places, but they are quite safe.
That aged French town of Chamb`ery was as quaint and crooked as Heilbronn. A drowsy reposeful quiet reigned in the back streets which made strolling through them very pleasant, barring the almost unbearable heat of the sun. In one of these streets, which was eight feet wide, gracefully curved, and built up with small antiquated houses, I saw three fat hogs lying asleep, and a boy (also asleep) taking care of them. From queer old-fashioned windows along the curve projected boxes of bright flowers, and over the edge of one of these boxes hung the head and shoulders of a cat--asleep. The five sleeping creatures were the only living things visible in that street. There was not a sound; absolute stillness prevailed. It was Sunday; one is not used to such dreamy Sundays on the continent. In our part of the town it was different that night. A regiment of brown and battered soldiers had arrived home from Algiers, and I judged they got thirsty on the way. They sang and drank till dawn, in the pleasant open air.
We left for Turin at ten the next morning by a railway which was profusely decorated with tunnels. We forgot to take a lantern along, consequently we missed all the scenery. Our compartment was full. A ponderous tow-headed Swiss woman, who put on many fine-lady airs, but was evidently more used to washing linen than wearing it, sat in a corner seat and put her legs across into the opposite one, propping them intermediately with her up-ended valise. In the seat thus pirated, sat two Americans, greatly incommoded by that woman's majestic coffin-clad feet. One of them begged, politely, to remove them. She opened her wide eyes and gave him a stare, but answered nothing. By and by he preferred his request again, with great respectfulness. She said, in good English, and in a deeply offended tone, that she had paid her passage and was not going to be bullied out of her "rights" by ill-bred foreigners, even if she was alone and unprotected.
"But I have rights, also, madam. My ticket entitles me to a seat, but you are occupying half of it."
"I will not talk with you, sir. What right have you to speak to me? I do not know you. One would know you came from a land where there are no gentlemen. No GENTLEMAN would treat a lady as you have treated me."
"I come from a region where a lady would hardly give me the same provocation."
"You have insulted me, sir! You have intimated that I am not a lady--and I hope I am NOT one, after the pattern of your country."
"I beg that you will give yourself no alarm on that head, madam; but at the same time I must insist--always respectfully--that you let me have my seat."
Here the fragile laundress burst into tears and sobs.
"I never was so insulted before! Never, never! It is shameful, it is brutal, it is base, to bully and abuse an unprotected lady who has lost the use of her limbs and cannot put her feet to the floor without agony!"
"Good heavens, madam, why didn't you say that at first! I offer a thousand pardons. And I offer them most sincerely. I did not know--I COULD not know--anything was the matter. You are most welcome to the seat, and would have been from the first if I had only known. I am truly sorry it all happened, I do assure you."
But he couldn't get a word of forgiveness out of her. She simply sobbed and sniffed in a subdued but wholly unappeasable way for two long hours, meantime crowding the man more than ever with her undertaker-furniture and paying no sort of attention to his frequent and humble little efforts to do something for her comfort. Then the train halted at the Italian line and she hopped up and marched out of the car with as firm a leg as any washerwoman of all her tribe! And how sick I was, to see how she had fooled me.
Turin is a very fine city. In the matter of roominess it transcends anything that was ever dreamed of before, I fancy. It sits in the midst of a vast dead-level, and one is obliged to imagine that land may be had for the asking, and no taxes to pay, so lavishly do they use it. The streets are extravagantly wide, the paved squares are prodigious, the houses are huge and handsome, and compacted into uniform blocks that stretch away as straight as an arrow, into the distance. The sidewalks are about as wide as ordinary European STREETS, and are covered over with a double arcade supported on great stone piers or columns. One walks from one end to the other of these spacious streets, under shelter all the time, and all his course is lined with the prettiest of shops and the most inviting dining-houses.
There is a wide and lengthy court, glittering with the most wickedly enticing shops, which is roofed with glass, high aloft overhead, and paved with soft-toned marbles laid in graceful figures; and at night when the place is brilliant with gas and populous with a sauntering and chatting and laughing multitude of pleasure-seekers, it is a spectacle worth seeing.
Everything is on a large scale; the public buildings, for instance--and they are architecturally imposing, too, as well as large. The big squares have big bronze monuments in them. At the hotel they gave us rooms that were alarming, for size, and parlor to match. It was well the weather required no fire in the parlor, for I think one might as well have tried to warm a park. The place would have a warm look, though, in any weather, for the window-curtains were of red silk damask, and the walls were covered with the same fire-hued goods--so, also, were the four sofas and the brigade of chairs. The furniture, the ornaments, the chandeliers, the carpets, were all new and bright and costly. We did not need a parlor at all, but they said it belonged to the two bedrooms and we might use it if we chose. Since it was to cost nothing, we were not averse to using it, of course.
Turin must surely read a good deal, for it has more book-stores to the square rod than any other town I know of. And it has its own share of military folk. The Italian officers' uniforms are very much the most beautiful I have ever seen; and, as a general thing, the men in them were as handsome as the clothes. They were not large men, but they had fine forms, fine features, rich olive complexions, and lustrous black eyes.
For several weeks I had been culling all the information I could about Italy, from tourists. The tourists were all agreed upon one thing--one must expect to be cheated at every turn by the Italians. I took an evening walk in Turin, and presently came across a little Punch and Judy show in one of the great squares. Twelve or fifteen people constituted the audience. This miniature theater was not much bigger than a man's coffin stood on end; the upper part was open and displayed a tinseled parlor--a good-sized handkerchief would have answered for a drop-curtain; the footlights consisted of a couple of candle-ends an inch long; various manikins the size of dolls appeared on the stage and made long speeches at each other, gesticulating a good deal, and they generally had a fight before they got through. They were worked by strings from above, and the illusion was not perfect, for one saw not only the strings but the brawny hand that manipulated them--and the actors and actresses all talked in the same voice, too. The audience stood in front of the theater, and seemed to enjoy the performance heartily.
When the play was done, a youth in his shirt-sleeves started around with a small copper saucer to make a collection. I did not know how much to put in, but thought I would be guided by my predecessors. Unluckily, I only had two of these, and they did not help me much because they did not put in anything. I had no Italian money, so I put in a small Swiss coin worth about ten cents. The youth finished his collection trip and emptied the result on the stage; he had some very animated talk with the concealed manager, then he came working his way through the little crowd--seeking me, I thought. I had a mind to slip away, but concluded I wouldn't; I would stand my ground, and confront the villainy, whatever it was. The youth stood before me and held up that Swiss coin, sure enough, and said something. I did not understand him, but I judged he was requiring Italian money of me. The crowd gathered close, to listen. I was irritated, and said--in English, of course:
"I know it's Swiss, but you'll take that or none. I haven't any other."
He tried to put the coin in my hand, and spoke again. I drew my hand away, and said:
"NO, sir. I know all about you people. You can't play any of your fraudful tricks on me. If there is a discount on that coin, I am sorry, but I am not going to make it good. I noticed that some of the audience didn't pay you anything at all. You let them go, without a word, but you come after me because you think I'm a stranger and will put up with an extortion rather than have a scene. But you are mistaken this time--you'll take that Swiss money or none."
The youth stood there with the coin in his fingers, nonplused and bewildered; of course he had not understood a word. An English-speaking Italian spoke up, now, and said:
"You are misunderstanding the boy. He does not mean any harm. He did not suppose you gave him so much money purposely, so he hurried back to return you the coin lest you might get away before you discovered your mistake. Take it, and give him a penny--that will make everything smooth again."
I probably blushed, then, for there was occasion. Through the interpreter I begged the boy's pardon, but I nobly refused to take back the ten cents. I said I was accustomed to squandering large sums in that way-- it was the kind of person I was. Then I retired to make a note to the effect that in Italy persons connected with the drama do not cheat.
The episode with the showman reminds me of a dark chapter in my history. I once robbed an aged and blind beggar-woman of four dollars--in a church. It happened this way. When I was out with the Innocents Abroad, the ship stopped in the Russian port of Odessa and I went ashore, with others, to view the town. I got separated from the rest, and wandered about alone, until late in the afternoon, when I entered a Greek church to see what it was like. When I was ready to leave, I observed two wrinkled old women standing stiffly upright against the inner wall, near the door, with their brown palms open to receive alms. I contributed to the nearer one, and passed out. I had gone fifty yards, perhaps, when it occurred to me that I must remain ashore all night, as I had heard that the ship's business would carry her away at four o'clock and keep her away until morning. It was a little after four now. I had come ashore with only two pieces of money, both about the same size, but differing largely in value--one was a French gold piece worth four dollars, the other a Turkish coin worth two cents and a half. With a sudden and horrified misgiving, I put my hand in my pocket, now, and sure enough, I fetched out that Turkish penny!
Here was a situation. A hotel would require pay in advance --I must walk the street all night, and perhaps be arrested as a suspicious character. There was but one way out of the difficulty--I flew back to the church, and softly entered. There stood the old woman yet, and in the palm of the nearest one still lay my gold piece. I was grateful. I crept close, feeling unspeakably mean; I got my Turkish penny ready, and was extending a trembling hand to make the nefarious exchange, when I heard a cough behind me. I jumped back as if I had been accused, and stood quaking while a worshiper entered and passed up the aisle.
I was there a year trying to steal that money; that is, it seemed a year, though, of course, it must have been much less. The worshipers went and came; there were hardly ever three in the church at once, but there was always one or more. Every time I tried to commit my crime somebody came in or somebody started out, and I was prevented; but at last my opportunity came; for one moment there was nobody in the church but the two beggar-women and me. I whipped the gold piece out of the poor old pauper's palm and dropped my Turkish penny in its place. Poor old thing, she murmured her thanks--they smote me to the heart. Then I sped away in a guilty hurry, and even when I was a mile from the church I was still glancing back, every moment, to see if I was being pursued.
That experience has been of priceless value and benefit to me; for I resolved then, that as long as I lived I would never again rob a blind beggar-woman in a church; and I have always kept my word. The most permanent lessons in morals are those which come, not of booky teaching, but of experience.