THE DAYS OF ST. BENOIT.
Mentone, Dec. 10.
It has poured with rain almost ever since we came, but "if it rains on
St. Benoit," say the inhabitants, (which unfortunately it did) "it
will rain more or less for forty days, and then it will be fine weather."
So since we have discovered that St. Benoit is the Mentonese St. Swithin, we
have lived upon hope, and have learnt to make the best of the few fine days
which trespass upon his property. The extreme wet has caused endless "eboulements,"
and the other day our next neighbour's garden slipped bodily down in the night
towards the sea, carrying all its earth, shrubs and orange trees with it. The
diligences and the mails come in twelve hours after their time, and the postman
often takes fright at the state of the elements, and refuses altogether to carry
round the letters, or turns back when half way to his destination, so that one
of our friends has taken to giving him wine on the days when he does appear by
way of encouragement for the future. Françoise, our new maid, declares that she
must be half an hour late in the morning, it takes her so long to pick up her
things, and splash from stone to stone in the broken pavement of the street; and
in the English church the service is much interrupted, and the congregation
almost deafened by the noise of the sea.
We have employed all the gleams of morning sunshine in drawing the old
gateway from the terrace in spite of the persecution of a crowd of children, who
as soon as we have sat down quietly, and are beginning to get on with our work,
have invented the new torment of dancing round in a circle, and singing in a
Monsieur pinta, pinta, pinta,
Vede, vede, vede, ve . . ! . . . ! !
This poetic turn would be amusing, if they would confine themselves, as they
sometimes do, to addressing each other, putting the commonest things quite
naturally into rhyme. A quaint little toddle called Tain is a general recipient,
of these improvisations, and I have heard quite a commonplace call for this
little object, which might be translated thus:
"Little Tain, little Tain,
Will you never come again:
Oh! you funny little Tain
Do not let us call in vain."
Sometimes our sufferings are varied by having sand poured into our paint
boxes, or little stones thrown at our heads. On these occasions, the mothers who
will stand looking on quite unmoved for their own part highly applaud our taking
vengeance for ourselves. But the other day, when one piece of earth after
another had come tumbling down at intervals upon my book from the rocks above,
and at last out of all patience, I rushed after the supposed children, and
finding my tormentors only to be cocks and hens scratching over my head, turned
my vengeance upon them; the owner was perfectly furious, and rushed at me,
screaming and quivering with rage, "What, are not the hens to take their
walks upon the rocks? are no the hens to be allowed to amuse themselves? how
could I dare to drive away the hens, who were a great deal better than myself?
for did not they know how to lay eggs, which was really useful, while I could do
nothing but cover a piece of paper with paint?"
The beauty of the flowers still in bloom in the gardens astonishes us
increasingly. On our terrace we have the tall light blue and the scarlet Salvia,
waving Tobacco plant, and Parma violets which flower all the year round. Besides
these, there are various sorts of Tropaeolum, the Mimosa, large flowering Senna,
and the Castor Oil plant, with its prickly crimson balls and large leaves like
those of a Plane tree. The principal wild flower now in bloom is a kind of small
Arum, which the natives call Cappuchini, or else Lampe Romane, from its
resemblance to those; articles when turned upside down; this quite covers the
terraces under the olive trees. Our maid Françoise turns out to have some
wonderful garden "chez elle," which admits of her constantly bringing
us presents of fresh oranges and lemons, and this morning she gave us a splendid
bunch of large white Jessamine in full bloom.
We had not been here long before several donkey-women presented themselves to
secure our custom. We engaged ourselves to a wild Meg Merrilies figure in a
broad white hat, with a red handkerchief tied underneath, and a bunch of flowers
stuck jauntily in the side of her hair. She rejoices in the name of Theresina
Ravellina Muratori de Buffa; but though her second name was only improvised by
herself because she did not think her other three sufficiently distinctive, she
is generally known as "La Ravellina," in order to distinguish her from
another and far more charming old Theresine (Paturine) who also keeps donkeys,
and who is familiar with every story of the place, from the oldest fairy legend,
to the details of the sufferings under the late Princes of Monaco. Our Theresine
too, chatters incessantly, though in a less interesting way. The first day she
went with us, she displayed all the various articles of her apparel, which had
been gifts from divers English ladies, who had been "toujours contentes de
Ravelline," evidently in the hope that we should also add to her wardrobe
on the "jour de l'an." When we asked her how many sons she had, she
told us she had three, one was a sailor, one was a donkey boy, and the third was
no longer anything, "parce que le bon Dieu 1'avait enlevé." We
afterwards discovered that "La Ravelline," has a philosophy of her
own; when one's friends die, she says, "Il ne faut pas se facher, ca perds
le temps, parce qu' on sait toujours qu' il faut mourir." Thus, she said,
it was when her first husband died, it was the will of God that he should die,
and so instead of complaining she married a Milanese; the only real misfortune
was that her second husband's trade was cutting trenches for drainage in the
olive gardens, and as this cannot be done in bad weather they were sometimes
very ill off; "mais le bon Dieu le veut, il ne faut pas se facher."
Everyone here is full of the French annexation, and indeed it is difficult to
imagine what can have induced the people to vote for a change, after nine happy
years of freedom under the government of Sardinia. It is said to be entirely
owing to the Syndic, whose French wife gave him French tendencies, although he
had been appointed under the Sardinian government. A poor man on the mountains
on being asked how they could thus voluntarily enslave themselves, gave a more
simple explanation the other day in his "Ah! Signor, . . . Citroni"!
It was probably really the case that the hope of a greater facility for the
fruit trade induced the Mentonese to be led by one or two persons into joining
themselves to France. Now they have found out their mistake, and bitterly repent
it, for not only is Mentone liable to French conscription, and beset with fresh
difficulties in the exportation of its lemons, but Pollenta, which is one of the
chief articles of consumption among the lower orders (who could not change their
diet with their nationality) is taxed one sous the litra, and costs six sous
here, while in Italy, only one-mile-and-a-half distant, it only costs five. All
this leads to a great deal of smuggling; and the other day as we were coming
home by the Italian Custom House, our donkey woman stopped before a little old
Cabaret just on the other side of the frontier, and called loudly, "Rufina,
Rufina," upon which a young woman came out, and after long whispering
presented her with a small parcel, which she hid mysteriously in the bosom of
her dress. It was "a little commission," she said; but after we were
safe across the frontier, where she ostentatiously exhibited the contents of our
basket to the gendarmes who were on the watch, she revealed that the packet
contained tobacco, (cheaper in Italy, like almost everything else) which she had
undertaken to convey to the town, in the same place she quaintly added,
"where many pieces of lace and other articles had travelled before
Compared with the state of the English poor, there is very little real
poverty here; almost every one has some little olive ground or orange garden
which they can call their own. Old Theresine told us that when young men marry,
they sometimes begin life with nothing; then the first object of the married
pair always is to put themselves "à l'abri," and not to be dependant
upon hired lodgings, for which they might be called on to pay rent just when it
would be most difficult for them to do so. For this purpose they hoard up till
they have got 400 or 500 francs, for which sum a house may be bought in the
upper part of the town, between the cemetery and St Michaele. The house secured,
the next thing to be bought is a piece of rock, which by perseverance and hard
labour may, in this climate, soon be transformed into a fruitful garden. Here
they often labour all night long, and lights are to be seen glimmering and songs
heard from the orange gardens of the poor all through the dark hours. The first
year they carry up earth, prepare the ground, and plant wild orange and lemon
trees; the second year they graft them, and the third year they begin to reap
the fruits. The oranges and lemons require watering once a week all through the
summer, but the olives, require more than this. They have to be constantly
trenched round to give air to the roots, without which they do not nourish, and
once a year (in March and April) they require to be manured with rags, which are
very expensive.* During the rag season the smell from
the olive groves is most unpleasant, and the effluvia from the ships, which
convey the rags to Mentone, is so offensive, that unloading them becomes a
service of the greatest danger.
circular trench, about a foot deep and two feet wide, is dug round the trunk,
and in this the rags, mostly procured in bales from Naples, are laid; a curious
assemblage of shreds of cloth gaiters, sleeves of jackets, bits of blankets,
horse-rugs, and so forth — the whole conveying an uncomfortable idea of a
Lazzarone's cast off clothes. A quantity not exceeding twenty pounds English
weight is allotted to each tree, and then the earth, which had been displaced
for their reception, is thrown over them, and they are left to ferment and
gradually decompose. Some agriculturalists throw a layer of common manure over
the rags before covering them with earth, but many experienced persons contend
that this is unnecessary. Great precaution is requisite to prevent any blight
from settling on the leaves." - (Mrs. Gretton.)]
We have now made several pleasant acquaintances amongst the native
inhabitants, of whom we had already heard much from a friend who had lived here
for many years.
"To whom do the upper classes in Mentone owe their general knowledge and
intelligence about everything," I asked of her one day.
"Oh, to Mademoiselle Lenoir," was the reply.
"Where did they get their strong religious feeling and ready discernment of
right and wrong?"
"It came from Mademoiselle Lenoir."
"What leads people to be so charitable in Mentone, and to take so much
trouble to prevent any poverty among their poorer neighbours"?
"It is owing to Mademoiselle Lenoir."
"Where do people go in the afternoon, as they turn up the narrow street
where the Mairie is, and stop at a house there?"
"They go to consult Mademoiselle Lenoir."
"And how did this lady gain this great influence"?
"Then how active and strong Mademoiselle Lenoir must be."
"No, Mademoiselle Lenoir has been bed-ridden for two years."
"How then has she been able to carry on all her good works"?
"Is she very rich"?
"No, she is very poor indeed, she has scarcely anything."
"How does she live then"?
"Oh, Mademoiselle Lenoir lives on love."
After hearing all this, I naturally longed to see this lady who had done so
much for the place, who was so loving and so beloved, and whose sick chamber is
like a shrine, where people go for assistance and advice. Soon I had a message
to say that she would be willing and able to receive me.
Twenty-two years ago, Mademoiselle Lenoir, who had spent many years in Russia
as a governess, came to Mentone intending only to spend a short time there.
During the time she had intended to stay, however, she saw enough of the
ignorance which prevailed, and its effects upon the character of the people, to
touch her deeply. For herself, she was then young, strong, energetic, and highly
educated. She had no particular object left in life, and her aged mother, the
only near relative she had in the world, was willing to make a home with her
wherever she wished, so she was determined to devote her life to a work which
seemed to her to have been especially thrown in her way, when other occupations
failed. When she arrived at Mentone, the upper classes were in a state of almost
heathen darkness and ignorance, the men merely careless and mindless, the women
engrossed with dress and frivolities, both without taste or acquirements, and
her impression was that raising their minds through education, would be
the easiest and surest means of obtaining a good influence over the lower
classes afterwards, and thus raising the standard both of intellect and morality
throughout Mentone. So she opened a school, which at first contained only three
pupils, but which all the young gentry of Mentone afterwards considered it their
greatest happiness to attend. The foundation of all her teaching was love, and
whilst she poured out the treasures of her own richly-stored mind to her
scholars, love was the ruling principle of action, which it was her first object
to instil. Her first pupils grew up around her loving and honouring her. And as
mistresses of households and mothers of families, they still found that their
best friend and wisest counsellor was the gentle governess who had watched over
The peasants learnt also to honour one who had worked so great a change in
the character of their superiors; — the sick clung to her whose experience and
knowledge rendered her as useful as a physician, whilst her gentle voice and
motherlike sweetness lightened the dreariness of the dark chamber, and fell like
balm upon their sufferings; mourners came to her for sympathy, which no one else
knew so well how to give; little children of former pupils sprung up around her
and called her blessed. Even Florestan, the wicked Prince of Monaco,
acknowledged her virtues, and on more than one occasion had recourse to her
knowledge of the character of his subjects, of which he himself was utterly
ignorant. He recognized his sense of her services by a pension, and when the
avaricious Caroline, Princess of Monaco, who had always been opposed to this
unusual display of generosity, suggested on a public occasion, in hopes of
drawing it back into the treasury, "that Mentone required more of
Mademoiselle Lenoir than her strength would admit of, and that it would be a
good thing for her if she would seek some sphere of usefulness which would be
less fatiguing to her;" he was heard to reply sternly, "Caroline, it
might be a good thing for Mademoiselle Lenoir if she were to give up Mentone;
but it would be a bad thing indeed for Mentone if it were to lose Mademoiselle
Her mother died, and Mademoiselle Lenoir was left alone, yet not alone even
in this world, for her former pupils clung around her like daughters, and when
two years ago, illness came upon her, with sufferings which death alone can
terminate, three of them, who knew the distress it would be to her if her work
should fall to the ground, voluntarily undertook to keep up her school in her
name, and in the room adjoining her sick chamber, her teaching still continues
through their instrumentality. For two hours only in the afternoon, an interval
of the most terrible suffering, is Mademoiselle Lenoir still able to see people,
or occupy herself as before, and then she sometimes still has the classes to her
bedside, sometimes gives advice to their teachers, sometimes admits the poor,
and occasionally receives visitors. Her pension ceased at the annexation, and
she was left in a state of the greatest poverty, but she has rooms in the house
of General Partouneaux, the father of one of her earliest pupils, and he and his
children visit her daily, and lavish the same care upon her which they would
bestow upon one of their own family. When I saw her she was half sitting up in
her bed, supported by pillows, her face occasionally convulsed with pain, but
yet bearing an expression of the most inexpressible sweetness, cheerfulness, and
resignation. When young she must have been very beautiful, and her manner is
still so winning, that it is easy to understand how she has gained the influence
which has made her so remarkable. Her room is full of prints and photographs,
memorials of her former pupils and friends, and has a very cheerful appearance;
but that which really makes you forget you are in a sick chamber, when you are
with Mademoiselle Lenoir, is the inward joy and peace which beams from her eyes,
and which no suffering or trial can destroy; and to her the Mentonese apply with
truth their ancient proverb, "On camin ben, non mai long," "to
the one who walks well, the way is never long."