THE CARNIVAL AND LENT.
THE Carnival at Mentone is very different to those of Rome and Nice, but
still is quite as much recognised in its own small way. The shops are full of
hideous masks, with which even the poorest inhabitants contrive to adorn
themselves towards evening, and the English inhabitants of Maison Gastaldy, and
the other houses which border on the principal street, are obliged to keep their
doors constantly locked, in order to prevent being interrupted, as it is quite
in accordance with Mentonese etiquette, for anyone in a mask, to pay anyone else
a visit if they can get in, and to stay as long as they like whether they are
acquainted or not. The other day, an English lady answered the door-bell
herself, when to her dismay she found four hideous masks with long bird's beaks
at the door, who took advantage of her surprise to fly past her into the drawing
room, where they startled the inmates by perching themselves on the armchairs
and sofa, and by chattering together in shrill bird's language for some time.
They turned out to be the dress-maker of the family and three young friends of
hers. Another day the house butcher and his family paid a long visit in masks to
the same people. Francois, the donkey man, rides through the streets in the
evening on one of his own donkeys, dressed as an English lady, with another mask
behind him as his man servant, carrying a camp stool and sketch-book. "But
where does he get his dress from," I asked of a lady who had lived many
years at Mentone. "Oh, there is no difficulty about that," she said,
"any washerwoman would lend him one; we have learnt now to send as little
as possible to the wash during the Carnival week, for when we send our things,
they come back so worn and spoilt, that it is evident somebody has been dressed
up in them every evening."
The Carnival ball at the Cirque had the unusual attraction to the English of
being preceded by two Vaudevilles, in which the actors were all Mentonese ladies
and gentlemen, who volunteered their services for the public amusement. The
first Vaudeville was "Les petites affiches;" the second, "Les
petites miseres de la vie humaine;" and nothing could have been more
admirable than the acting, especially that of the Gastaldy family, whose
dramatic talents are quite extraordinary. These performances had drawn such a
crowd together, that the ball which took place afterwards was a great crush, and
the heat most intense. According to an ancient Mentonese custom, all the maskers
in the street had formerly the right of penetrating as far as the ball room,
whenever they pleased during the Carnival, a privilege of which they availed
themselves in large numbers. On these occasions the general dancing was stopped,
and the masks being introduced, commenced a dance called the Montferrine, with
those of the society, who they could engage as partners; after this dance the
masks went away, but would return three or four times in the same evening. This
custom, handed down from time immemorial, which united rich and poor, noble and
bourgeois, has fallen into disuse only during the last few years. The first time
an attempt was made to prevent the masks from entering, they tried to force
their way in, asserting that no one had the right to abolish so ancient a
custom, but the guard interfered, and they were obliged to submit. Since that
time the balls at Mentone have been like those in any other provincial town.
Shrove Tuesday here had an imitation on a very small scale of the scenes which
take place in the great Italian cities on that day. The Strada St. Michaele was
crowded towards three o'clock with almost the whole population of the place, who
stood in two thick lines against the houses, prepared to gape and shout at the
absurd figures in masks and costume, who kept running backwards and forwards up
the middle of the street. The dresses were filthy and shabby to the last degree,
but very ridiculous. Sometimes an old lady in spectacles would pass riding on a
donkey, and enveloped in a coloured hood, which, when she came near, disclosed
the moustache and pointed black beard of a man. Sometimes an old general hobbled
by in cocked hat and uniform, apparently very much the worse for warfare, and
supported by his affectionate daughters; here was seen a party of gipsies, with
copper-coloured faces, jabbering in qualch: there four ghosts deadly white and
sewn up together in the same sheet, from which only their heads projected, while
they stood upright in a cart, and uttered horrid shrieks at intervals. Then,
amid all the rag-tag and bob-tail of the place, six young men of the best
Mentonese families, who had first dined in costume at the Hotel de Londres,
spent the afternoon in chasing each other on donkeys, which were trained to
perform a dance for the occasion in the middle of the street. At four o'clock
the tumult began to subside, but several masks were loitering about till quite
late in the evening, and a hideous creature dressed entirely in yellow pursued
me all the way to a party, like the yellow mask at Pisa, in Wilkie Collins'
story. At night there was the ball for the lower classes, to which our donna
went, and danced till five in the morning, for, as she said, it was always
"Encore une polka, encore une valse, pendant toute la nuit."
The bay was the scene of a curious adventure on Sunday, when a Genoese
Marchese went out with two ladies in a pleasure-boat, which was upset a little
beyond the fort, by a sudden gust of wind. The Marchese swam to shore, and the
two ladies had presence of mind to float quietly upon their crenolines, till a
boat put out from the fort and picked them up. Afterwards, their quaint
life-preservers were hung out to dry from an upper window in the Pension
Anglaise, where they were staying, and became quite an object of pilgrimage for
the whole afternoon to the idle people of Mentone.
A grand pic-nic has been given at the Madone, by the English artists, living
at Mentone, and their friends. It had been fixed for the preceding Monday, but
was put off because it poured with rain, since, as the disappointed coachman
from whom we had ordered our carriage announced, "le bon Dieu oubliait que
c'etait le jour de fete." However, at last, both day and pic-nic were
charming, if pic-nic it could be called, when it was more like a very smart
London breakfast, given in the old refectory of the convent. Afterwards there
was dancing beneath the pine trees in the garden, while the Mentonese ladies and
gentlemen sat and watched indefatigably, an amusement which they preferred to
playing at games, for as it was Lent, they were not able to join in the dancing.
The French visitors, however, were able to dance, for the Pope had given
them dispensation for the Careme, because, as they said, "Cà nous gene
trôp." From time immemorial it was the rule at Mentone, for all the young
inhabitants to dance after vespers under these pines of the Madone, and it has
been only quite of late years that this custom has fallen into disuse. A Duke of
York, (no one quite knows what Duke of York) lived in the adjoining Pavillion,
in the time of the early princes, before the first French revolution. It is said
he set up the column on the Cape St. Martin, of which the remains are still
This place looks more rich and fertile than ever. New flowers come out every
day, and the gardens are really splendid. Camelias bloom luxuriantly in the open
air. The Gorbio valley is full of anemones, which carpet the ground under the
oranges; there are several varieties, the single purple anemone, the bright
single scarlet and the double scarlet, which is green when it first comes out,
and which we have in our gardens in England, and also the star-like single
anemone, whose colour varies from the palest lilac to pink. Everywhere the air
is scented by the orange and lemon blossoms, which are as valuable as the fruit
itself, from the price they fetch in the perfume manufactories. The oranges are
much hardier than the lemons, and in dry weather will bear seven degrees of
frost, while the lemons perish at four or five degrees; but if a frost sets in
after rainy weather, a much slighter degree of cold is fatal to both.
Old Theresine told me one day that the fertility of Mentone was all owing to
Eve. "why what did she do
"To Eve," I said,
"Oh, she gave us the gift of Paradise."
"The gift of Paradise, and what is that?"
"Oh, don't you know," she said, "that though Adam and Eve were
very much hurried when they were turned out of Paradise, and had not time to
consider what they should take with them, close by the gate of Paradise there
grew a lemon tree, and Eve, as she passed by, had just time to snatch one single
fruit, which she hid in her apron as she went out. Afterwards, when she was
wandering about on the earth, she threw the lemon down upon Mentone, where it
grew and multiplied, and so it is that we have here the one thing which really
came out of Paradise." Afterwards we found old Theresine's story in the
"Just within Eden's gate
A lovely tree had root;
The leaves were of the richest green,
Of pale gold hue the fruit.
It chanced upon that mournful day,
When thro' the portals past,
Our parents twain, Eve turned again
That she might look her last.
O'erwhelmed with grief her bowers to leave,
Just as she hurried through,
In haste she stretched her hand and snatched
A lemon from the bough.
'I'll treasure this,' she said, 'until
On the bleak earth I find,
One spot so fair, as to reflect,
The joys I've left behind.'
Upon a mountain high she stood,
And sadly she looked down,
As the dull earth beneath her lay,
With briars and thorns o'ergrown.
Till in the far far west she spied
A bay whose sunny coast,
Fringing the sapphire wave, recall'd
The Eden she had lost.
She flung her treasure there, and cried,
'Shed forth thy seeds to grow,
And make of this one smiling spot,
A Paradise below.'
The lemon grew and multiplied,
From that day unto this,
And at Mentone, mortals find
A taste of Eden's bliss."
Another story, which is told by the Mentonese to prove the extraordinary
fertility of the soil, is, that the large handsome tree shrub, which stands in
front of the Maison d'Ardoin, near the Bazaar, and which forms the chief
ornament of the Rue St. Michel, originated in the walking stick of a gentleman,
which he stuck into the ground near the door, when he went to pay a visit to a
lady who lived in the house. Coming out, he forgot it, and going back to recover
it three days after, he found his stick sprouting and growing where he had left
it, after which it attained to its present size.