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Charles Dickens > Pictures From Italy > Chapter 1

Pictures From Italy

Chapter 1


On a fine Sunday morning in the Midsummer time and weather of
eighteen hundred and forty-four, it was, my good friend, when--
don't be alarmed; not when two travellers might have been observed
slowly making their way over that picturesque and broken ground by
which the first chapter of a Middle Aged novel is usually attained-
-but when an English travelling-carriage of considerable
proportions, fresh from the shady halls of the Pantechnicon near
Belgrave Square, London, was observed (by a very small French
soldier; for I saw him look at it) to issue from the gate of the
Hotel Meurice in the Rue Rivoli at Paris.

I am no more bound to explain why the English family travelling by
this carriage, inside and out, should be starting for Italy on a
Sunday morning, of all good days in the week, than I am to assign a
reason for all the little men in France being soldiers, and all the
big men postilions; which is the invariable rule. But, they had
some sort of reason for what they did, I have no doubt; and their
reason for being there at all, was, as you know, that they were
going to live in fair Genoa for a year; and that the head of the
family purposed, in that space of time, to stroll about, wherever
his restless humour carried him.

And it would have been small comfort to me to have explained to the
population of Paris generally, that I was that Head and Chief; and
not the radiant embodiment of good humour who sat beside me in the
person of a French Courier--best of servants and most beaming of
men! Truth to say, he looked a great deal more patriarchal than I,
who, in the shadow of his portly presence, dwindled down to no
account at all.

There was, of course, very little in the aspect of Paris--as we
rattled near the dismal Morgue and over the Pont Neuf--to reproach
us for our Sunday travelling. The wine-shops (every second house)
were driving a roaring trade; awnings were spreading, and chairs
and tables arranging, outside the cafes, preparatory to the eating
of ices, and drinking of cool liquids, later in the day; shoe-
blacks were busy on the bridges; shops were open; carts and waggons
clattered to and fro; the narrow, up-hill, funnel-like streets
across the River, were so many dense perspectives of crowd and
bustle, parti-coloured nightcaps, tobacco-pipes, blouses, large
boots, and shaggy heads of hair; nothing at that hour denoted a day
of rest, unless it were the appearance, here and there, of a family
pleasure-party, crammed into a bulky old lumbering cab; or of some
contemplative holiday-maker in the freest and easiest dishabille,
leaning out of a low garret window, watching the drying of his
newly polished shoes on the little parapet outside (if a
gentleman), or the airing of her stockings in the sun (if a lady),
with calm anticipation.

Once clear of the never-to-be-forgotten-or-forgiven pavement which
surrounds Paris, the first three days of travelling towards
Marseilles are quiet and monotonous enough. To Sens. To Avallon.
To Chalons. A sketch of one day's proceedings is a sketch of all
three; and here it is.

We have four horses, and one postilion, who has a very long whip,
and drives his team, something like the Courier of Saint
Petersburgh in the circle at Astley's or Franconi's: only he sits
his own horse instead of standing on him. The immense jack-boots
worn by these postilions, are sometimes a century or two old; and
are so ludicrously disproportionate to the wearer's foot, that the
spur, which is put where his own heel comes, is generally halfway
up the leg of the boots. The man often comes out of the stable-
yard, with his whip in his hand and his shoes on, and brings out,
in both hands, one boot at a time, which he plants on the ground by
the side of his horse, with great gravity, until everything is
ready. When it is--and oh Heaven! the noise they make about it!--
he gets into the boots, shoes and all, or is hoisted into them by a
couple of friends; adjusts the rope harness, embossed by the
labours of innumerable pigeons in the stables; makes all the horses
kick and plunge; cracks his whip like a madman; shouts 'En route--
Hi!' and away we go. He is sure to have a contest with his horse
before we have gone very far; and then he calls him a Thief, and a
Brigand, and a Pig, and what not; and beats him about the head as
if he were made of wood.

There is little more than one variety in the appearance of the
country, for the first two days. From a dreary plain, to an
interminable avenue, and from an interminable avenue to a dreary
plain again. Plenty of vines there are in the open fields, but of
a short low kind, and not trained in festoons, but about straight
sticks. Beggars innumerable there are, everywhere; but an
extraordinarily scanty population, and fewer children than I ever
encountered. I don't believe we saw a hundred children between
Paris and Chalons. Queer old towns, draw-bridged and walled: with
odd little towers at the angles, like grotesque faces, as if the
wall had put a mask on, and were staring down into the moat; other
strange little towers, in gardens and fields, and down lanes, and
in farm-yards: all alone, and always round, with a peaked roof,
and never used for any purpose at all; ruinous buildings of all
sorts; sometimes an hotel de ville, sometimes a guard-house,
sometimes a dwelling-house, sometimes a chateau with a rank garden,
prolific in dandelion, and watched over by extinguisher-topped
turrets, and blink-eyed little casements; are the standard objects,
repeated over and over again. Sometimes we pass a village inn,
with a crumbling wall belonging to it, and a perfect town of out-
houses; and painted over the gateway, 'Stabling for Sixty Horses;'
as indeed there might be stabling for sixty score, were there any
horses to be stabled there, or anybody resting there, or anything
stirring about the place but a dangling bush, indicative of the
wine inside: which flutters idly in the wind, in lazy keeping with
everything else, and certainly is never in a green old age, though
always so old as to be dropping to pieces. And all day long,
strange little narrow waggons, in strings of six or eight, bringing
cheese from Switzerland, and frequently in charge, the whole line,
of one man, or even boy--and he very often asleep in the foremost
cart--come jingling past: the horses drowsily ringing the bells
upon their harness, and looking as if they thought (no doubt they
do) their great blue woolly furniture, of immense weight and
thickness, with a pair of grotesque horns growing out of the
collar, very much too warm for the Midsummer weather.

Then, there is the Diligence, twice or thrice a-day; with the dusty
outsides in blue frocks, like butchers; and the insides in white
nightcaps; and its cabriolet head on the roof, nodding and shaking,
like an idiot's head; and its Young-France passengers staring out
of window, with beards down to their waists, and blue spectacles
awfully shading their warlike eyes, and very big sticks clenched in
their National grasp. Also the Malle Poste, with only a couple of
passengers, tearing along at a real good dare-devil pace, and out
of sight in no time. Steady old Cures come jolting past, now and
then, in such ramshackle, rusty, musty, clattering coaches as no
Englishman would believe in; and bony women dawdle about in
solitary places, holding cows by ropes while they feed, or digging
and hoeing or doing field-work of a more laborious kind, or
representing real shepherdesses with their flocks--to obtain an
adequate idea of which pursuit and its followers, in any country,
it is only necessary to take any pastoral poem, or picture, and
imagine to yourself whatever is most exquisitely and widely unlike
the descriptions therein contained.

You have been travelling along, stupidly enough, as you generally
do in the last stage of the day; and the ninety-six bells upon the
horses--twenty-four apiece--have been ringing sleepily in your ears
for half an hour or so; and it has become a very jog-trot,
monotonous, tiresome sort of business; and you have been thinking
deeply about the dinner you will have at the next stage; when, down
at the end of the long avenue of trees through which you are
travelling, the first indication of a town appears, in the shape of
some straggling cottages: and the carriage begins to rattle and
roll over a horribly uneven pavement. As if the equipage were a
great firework, and the mere sight of a smoking cottage chimney had
lighted it, instantly it begins to crack and splutter, as if the
very devil were in it. Crack, crack, crack, crack. Crack-crack-
crack. Crick-crack. Crick-crack. Helo! Hola! Vite! Voleur!
Brigand! Hi hi hi! En r-r-r-r-r-route! Whip, wheels, driver,
stones, beggars, children, crack, crack, crack; helo! hola! charite
pour l'amour de Dieu! crick-crack-crick-crack; crick, crick, crick;
bump, jolt, crack, bump, crick-crack; round the corner, up the
narrow street, down the paved hill on the other side; in the
gutter; bump, bump; jolt, jog, crick, crick, crick; crack, crack,
crack; into the shop-windows on the left-hand side of the street,
preliminary to a sweeping turn into the wooden archway on the
right; rumble, rumble, rumble; clatter, clatter, clatter; crick,
crick, crick; and here we are in the yard of the Hotel de l'Ecu
d'Or; used up, gone out, smoking, spent, exhausted; but sometimes
making a false start unexpectedly, with nothing coming of it--like
a firework to the last!

The landlady of the Hotel de l'Ecu d'Or is here; and the landlord
of the Hotel de l'Ecu d'Or is here; and the femme de chambre of the
Hotel de l'Ecu d'Or is here; and a gentleman in a glazed cap, with
a red beard like a bosom friend, who is staying at the Hotel de
l'Ecu d'Or, is here; and Monsieur le Cure is walking up and down in
a corner of the yard by himself, with a shovel hat upon his head,
and a black gown on his back, and a book in one hand, and an
umbrella in the other; and everybody, except Monsieur le Cure, is
open-mouthed and open-eyed, for the opening of the carriage-door.
The landlord of the Hotel de l'Ecu d'Or, dotes to that extent upon
the Courier, that he can hardly wait for his coming down from the
box, but embraces his very legs and boot-heels as he descends. 'My
Courier! My brave Courier! My friend! My brother!' The landlady
loves him, the femme de chambre blesses him, the garcon worships
him. The Courier asks if his letter has been received? It has, it
has. Are the rooms prepared? They are, they are. The best rooms
for my noble Courier. The rooms of state for my gallant Courier;
the whole house is at the service of my best of friends! He keeps
his hand upon the carriage-door, and asks some other question to
enhance the expectation. He carries a green leathern purse outside
his coat, suspended by a belt. The idlers look at it; one touches
it. It is full of five-franc pieces. Murmurs of admiration are
heard among the boys. The landlord falls upon the Courier's neck,
and folds him to his breast. He is so much fatter than he was, he
says! He looks so rosy and so well!

The door is opened. Breathless expectation. The lady of the
family gets out. Ah sweet lady! Beautiful lady! The sister of
the lady of the family gets out. Great Heaven, Ma'amselle is
charming! First little boy gets out. Ah, what a beautiful little
boy! First little girl gets out. Oh, but this is an enchanting
child! Second little girl gets out. The landlady, yielding to the
finest impulse of our common nature, catches her up in her arms!
Second little boy gets out. Oh, the sweet boy! Oh, the tender
little family! The baby is handed out. Angelic baby! The baby
has topped everything. All the rapture is expended on the baby!
Then the two nurses tumble out; and the enthusiasm swelling into
madness, the whole family are swept up-stairs as on a cloud; while
the idlers press about the carriage, and look into it, and walk
round it, and touch it. For it is something to touch a carriage
that has held so many people. It is a legacy to leave one's

The rooms are on the first floor, except the nursery for the night,
which is a great rambling chamber, with four or five beds in it:
through a dark passage, up two steps, down four, past a pump,
across a balcony, and next door to the stable. The other sleeping
apartments are large and lofty; each with two small bedsteads,
tastefully hung, like the windows, with red and white drapery. The
sitting-room is famous. Dinner is already laid in it for three;
and the napkins are folded in cocked-hat fashion. The floors are
of red tile. There are no carpets, and not much furniture to speak
of; but there is abundance of looking-glass, and there are large
vases under glass shades, filled with artificial flowers; and there
are plenty of clocks. The whole party are in motion. The brave
Courier, in particular, is everywhere: looking after the beds,
having wine poured down his throat by his dear brother the
landlord, and picking up green cucumbers--always cucumbers; Heaven
knows where he gets them--with which he walks about, one in each
hand, like truncheons.

Dinner is announced. There is very thin soup; there are very large
loaves--one apiece; a fish; four dishes afterwards; some poultry
afterwards; a dessert afterwards; and no lack of wine. There is
not much in the dishes; but they are very good, and always ready
instantly. When it is nearly dark, the brave Courier, having eaten
the two cucumbers, sliced up in the contents of a pretty large
decanter of oil, and another of vinegar, emerges from his retreat
below, and proposes a visit to the Cathedral, whose massive tower
frowns down upon the court-yard of the inn. Off we go; and very
solemn and grand it is, in the dim light: so dim at last, that the
polite, old, lanthorn-jawed Sacristan has a feeble little bit of
candle in his hand, to grope among the tombs with--and looks among
the grim columns, very like a lost ghost who is searching for his

Underneath the balcony, when we return, the inferior servants of
the inn are supping in the open air, at a great table; the dish, a
stew of meat and vegetables, smoking hot, and served in the iron
cauldron it was boiled in. They have a pitcher of thin wine, and
are very merry; merrier than the gentleman with the red beard, who
is playing billiards in the light room on the left of the yard,
where shadows, with cues in their hands, and cigars in their
mouths, cross and recross the window, constantly. Still the thin
Cure walks up and down alone, with his book and umbrella. And
there he walks, and there the billiard-balls rattle, long after we
are fast asleep.

We are astir at six next morning. It is a delightful day, shaming
yesterday's mud upon the carriage, if anything could shame a
carriage, in a land where carriages are never cleaned. Everybody
is brisk; and as we finish breakfast, the horses come jingling into
the yard from the Post-house. Everything taken out of the carriage
is put back again. The brave Courier announces that all is ready,
after walking into every room, and looking all round it, to be
certain that nothing is left behind. Everybody gets in. Everybody
connected with the Hotel de l'Ecu d'Or is again enchanted. The
brave Courier runs into the house for a parcel containing cold
fowl, sliced ham, bread, and biscuits, for lunch; hands it into the
coach; and runs back again.

What has he got in his hand now? More cucumbers? No. A long
strip of paper. It's the bill.

The brave Courier has two belts on, this morning: one supporting
the purse: another, a mighty good sort of leathern bottle, filled
to the throat with the best light Bordeaux wine in the house. He
never pays the bill till this bottle is full. Then he disputes it.

He disputes it now, violently. He is still the landlord's brother,
but by another father or mother. He is not so nearly related to
him as he was last night. The landlord scratches his head. The
brave Courier points to certain figures in the bill, and intimates
that if they remain there, the Hotel de l'Ecu d'Or is thenceforth
and for ever an hotel de l'Ecu de cuivre. The landlord goes into a
little counting-house. The brave Courier follows, forces the bill
and a pen into his hand, and talks more rapidly than ever. The
landlord takes the pen. The Courier smiles. The landlord makes an
alteration. The Courier cuts a joke. The landlord is
affectionate, but not weakly so. He bears it like a man. He
shakes hands with his brave brother, but he don't hug him. Still,
he loves his brother; for he knows that he will be returning that
way, one of these fine days, with another family, and he foresees
that his heart will yearn towards him again. The brave Courier
traverses all round the carriage once, looks at the drag, inspects
the wheels, jumps up, gives the word, and away we go!

It is market morning. The market is held in the little square
outside in front of the cathedral. It is crowded with men and
women, in blue, in red, in green, in white; with canvassed stalls;
and fluttering merchandise. The country people are grouped about,
with their clean baskets before them. Here, the lace-sellers;
there, the butter and egg-sellers; there, the fruit-sellers; there,
the shoe-makers. The whole place looks as if it were the stage of
some great theatre, and the curtain had just run up, for a
picturesque ballet. And there is the cathedral to boot: scene-
like: all grim, and swarthy, and mouldering, and cold: just
splashing the pavement in one place with faint purple drops, as the
morning sun, entering by a little window on the eastern side,
struggles through some stained glass panes, on the western.

In five minutes we have passed the iron cross, with a little ragged
kneeling-place of turf before it, in the outskirts of the town; and
are again upon the road.

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