Chapter V. Paris Again - And Bordeaux: Journal of a Flight from a London Fogs
"There is nothing mysterious about it," he said. "I get up at half past three every morning. I am at that desk most of the day; I go to bed at nine o'clock. If I had to write a banal note, it might take time, but there are certain ideas which I have worked with all my life. I worked a good many years without expressing them; they are all in my head, and when I want them I've only got to take them out. I am eighty-three years old, and if I couldn't express myself by this time" - the old gentleman lifted his eyebrows, smiled whimsically, and, with a quick movement of shoulders and hands, concluded - "it would be a public calamity - a malheur public!"
I thought of the padded lives of some of our literary charlatans and editorial gold bricks at home, of the clever young artists ruined as painters by becoming popular illustrators, the young writers content to substitute overpaid banality and bathos for honest work, and I must confess that the sight of this indomitable old fighter, who had known great men and held high place in his day, and now at eighty-three got up before daylight to pound out in longhand his columns of vivid prose, stirred every drop of what you might call one's intellectual sporting blood. Of his opinions I know little, of the justice of his attacks less, and, to be quite frank, I suspect he is something of a trouble-maker. But as he stood there, bundled up in his overcoat and cap, in that chilly lodging-house room, witty, unsubdued, full of fight and of charm, he seemed to stand for that wonderful French spirit - for its ardor and penetration, its fusion of sense and sensibility, its tireless intelligence and unquenchable fire.
The consul of Cognac! It sounded like a musical comedy when we met on the steamer last August; not quite so odd when we bumped into each other in Bordeaux; and now it turns out to mean, in addition to being a young University of Virginia man, thoroughly acquainted with the people he has to deal with, living in a town where the towers of Francis I's castle still stand, rowing on a charming old river in the summer, and in these days hearing a charming old French gentleman, vice-consul, tell how he fought against the Prussians in '70. Cognac is a real place, it appears - an old town of twenty thousand people or so, and it is really where cognac comes from, all other brandies being, of course, as one will learn here, mere upstart eaux-de-vie. We went through some of the cellars to-day, as venerable and vast as the claret cellars in Bordeaux, although not quite as interesting, perhaps, because not so "alive." For wine is a living thing, as the man said in Bordeaux, and it must be ignobly boiled and destroyed before turning into a distilled spirit. To some this pale spiritual essence may possess a finer poetry - the cellars are more fragrant, at any rate.
All the young men had gone to the front - their wages continued as usual - and the work was carried on by women and old servitors, scarcely one of the latter under seventy. They were pointed out as examples of the beneficent effect of the true cognac - these old boys who had inhaled the slightly pungent fragrance of the cellars and bottling-rooms all their lives. You get this perfume all over Cognac. It comes wandering down old alleyways, out from under dark arches, people live literally in a fine mist of it. The very stones are turned black by the faint fumes.
There must be scores of towns south of Paris which look more or less like this - the young men gone or drilling in the neighborhood, the schools turned into hospitals, the little old provincial hotels sheltering families fled from Paris. There are several such at our hotel, nice, comfortable people - you might think you were in some semi-summer-resort hotel at home - Ridgefield, Conn., for instance, in winter time.
The making of cognac occupies nearly every one, one way or another, and it has made the place next to the richest town of its size in France. They make the cognac, and they make the bottles for it in a glass factory on a hill overlooking the town - about as airy and pleasant a place for a factory as one could imagine. The molten glass is poured into moulds, the moulds closed - psst! a stream of compressed air turned in, the bottles blown, and there you are - a score or so of them turned out every minute. As we came out of the furnace-room into the chilly afternoon a regiment of reservists tramped in from a practise march in the country. Some were young fellows, wearing uniforms for the first time, apparently; some looked like convalescents drafted back into the army. They took one road and we another, and half an hour later swung down the main street of Cognac behind a chorus of shrilling bugles. All over France, south of Paris, they must be marching like this these frosty afternoons.
Coming up from Bordeaux the other night we missed the regular connection and had to spend the night at Saintes. The tall, quizzical, rather grim old landlady of the neat little Hotel de la Gare - characteristic of that rugged France which tourists who only see a few streets in Paris know little about - was plainly puzzled. There we were, two able-bodied men, and P - - - , saying nothing about being consul, merely remarked that he lived in Cognac. "In Cognac!" the old woman repeated, looking from one to the other, and then added, as one putting an unanswerable question: "But you are not soldiers?"