Travels through France and Italy, by Tobias Smollett

Letter IX

Montpellier, November 5, 1763.

DEAR SIR — The city of Lyons has been so often and so circumstantially described, that I cannot pretend to say any thing new on the subject. Indeed, I know very little of it, but what I have read in books; as I had but one day to make a tour of the streets, squares, and other remarkable places. The bridge over the Rhone seems to be so slightly built, that I should imagine it would be one day carried away by that rapid river; especially as the arches are so small, that, after great rains they are sometimes bouchees, or stopped up; that is, they do not admit a sufficient passage for the encreased body of the water. In order to remedy this dangerous defect, in some measure, they found an artist some years ago, who has removed a middle pier, and thrown two arches into one. This alteration they looked upon as a masterpiece in architecture, though there is many a common mason in England, who would have undertaken and performed the work, without valuing himself much upon the enterprize. This bridge, as well as that of St. Esprit, is built, not in a strait line across the river, but with a curve, which forms a convexity to oppose the current. Such a bend is certainly calculated for the better resisting the general impetuosity of the stream, and has no bad effect to the eye.

Lyons is a great, populous, and flourishing city but I am surprised to find it is counted a healthy place, and that the air of it is esteemed favourable to pulmonic disorders. It is situated on the confluence of two large rivers, from which there must be a great evaporation, as well as from the low marshy grounds, which these rivers often overflow. This must render the air moist, frouzy, and even putrid, if it was not well ventilated by winds from the mountains of Swisserland; and in the latter end of autumn, it must be subject to fogs. The morning we set out from thence, the whole city and adjacent plains were covered with so thick a fog, that we could not distinguish from the coach the head of the foremost mule that drew it. Lyons is said to be very hot in summer, and very cold in winter; therefore I imagine must abound with inflammatory and intermittent disorders in the spring and fall of the year.

My reasons for going to Montpellier, which is out of the strait road to Nice, were these. Having no acquaintance nor correspondents in the South of France, I had desired my credit might be sent to the same house to which my heavy baggage was consigned. I expected to find my baggage at Cette, which is the sea-port of Montpellier; and there I also hoped to find a vessel, in which I might be transported by sea to Nice, without further trouble. I longed to try what effect the boasted air of Montpellier would have upon my constitution; and I had a great desire to see the famous monuments of antiquity in and about the ancient city of Nismes, which is about eight leagues short of Montpellier.

At the inn where we lodged, I found a return berline, belonging to Avignon, with three mules, which are the animals commonly used for carriages in this country. This I hired for five loui’dores. The coach was large, commodious, and well-fitted; the mules were strong and in good order; and the driver, whose name was Joseph, appeared to be a sober, sagacious, intelligent fellow, perfectly well acquainted with every place in the South of France. He told me he was owner of the coach, but I afterwards learned, he was no other than a hired servant. I likewise detected him in some knavery, in the course of our journey; and plainly perceived he had a fellow-feeling with the inn-keepers on the road; but, in other respects, he was very obliging, serviceable, and even entertaining. There are some knavish practices of this kind, at which a traveller will do well to shut his eyes, for his own ease and convenience. He will be lucky if he has to do with a sensible knave, like Joseph, who understood his interest too well to be guilty of very flagrant pieces of imposition.

A man, impatient to be at his journey’s end, will find this a most disagreeable way of travelling. In summer it must be quite intolerable. The mules are very sure, but very slow. The journey seldom exceeds eight leagues, about four and twenty miles a day: and as those people have certain fixed stages, you are sometimes obliged to rise in a morning before day; a circumstance very grievous to persons in ill health. These inconveniences, however, were over-balanced by other agreemens. We no, sooner quitted Lyons, than we got into summer weather, and travelling through a most romantic country, along the banks of the Rhone, had opportunities (from the slowness of our pace) to contemplate its beauties at leisure.

The rapidity of the Rhone is, in a great measure, owing to its being confined within steep banks on each side. These are formed almost through its whole course, by a double chain of mountains, which rise with all abrupt ascent from both banks of the river. The mountains are covered with vineyards, interspersed with small summer-houses, and in many places they are crowned with churches, chapels, and convents, which add greatly to the romantic beauty of the prospect. The highroad, as far as Avignon, lies along the side of the river, which runs almost in a straight line, and affords great convenience for inland commerce. Travellers, bound to the southern parts of France, generally embark in the diligence at Lyons, and glide down this river with great velocity, passing a great number of towns and villages on each side, where they find ordinaries every day at dinner and supper. In good weather, there is no danger in this method of travelling, ‘till you come to the Pont St. Esprit, where the stream runs through the arches with such rapidity, that the boat is sometimes overset. But those passengers who are under any apprehension are landed above-bridge, and taken in again, after the boat has passed, just in the same manner as at London Bridge. The boats that go up the river are drawn against the stream by oxen, which swim through one of the arches of this bridge, the driver sitting between the horns of the foremost beast. We set out from Lyons early on Monday morning, and as a robbery had been a few days before committed in that neighbourhood, I ordered my servant to load my musquetoon with a charge of eight balls. By the bye, this piece did not fail to attract the curiosity and admiration of the people in every place through which we passed. The carriage no sooner halted, than a crowd immediately surrounded the man to view the blunderbuss, which they dignified with the title of petit canon. At Nuys in Burgundy, he fired it in the air, and the whole mob dispersed, and scampered off like a flock of sheep. In our journey hither, we generally set out in a morning at eight o’clock, and travelled ‘till noon, when the mules were put up and rested a couple of hours. During this halt, Joseph went to dinner, and we went to breakfast, after which we ordered provision for our refreshment in the coach, which we took about three or four in the afternoon, halting for that purpose, by the side of some transparent brook, which afforded excellent water to mix with our wine. In this country I was almost poisoned with garlic, which they mix in their ragouts, and all their sauces; nay, the smell of it perfumes the very chambers, as well as every person you approach. I was also very sick of been ficas, grives, or thrushes, and other little birds, which are served up twice a day at all ordinaries on the road. They make their appearance in vine-leaves, and are always half raw, in which condition the French choose to eat them, rather than run the risque of losing the juice by over-roasting.

The peasants on the South of France are poorly clad, and look as if they were half-starved, diminutive, swarthy, and meagre; and yet the common people who travel, live luxuriously on the road. Every carrier and mule-driver has two meals a day, consisting each of a couple of courses and a dessert, with tolerable small wine. That which is called hermitage, and grows in this province of Dauphine, is sold on the spot for three livres a bottle. The common draught, which you have at meals in this country, is remarkably strong, though in flavour much inferior to that of Burgundy. The accommodation is tolerable, though they demand (even in this cheap country) the exorbitant price of four livres a head for every meal, of those who choose to eat in their own apartments. I insisted, however, upon paying them with three, which they received, though not without murmuring and seeming discontented. In this journey, we found plenty of good mutton, pork, poultry, and game, including the red partridge, which is near twice as big as the partridge of England. Their hares are likewise surprisingly large and juicy. We saw great flocks of black turkeys feeding in the fields, but no black cattle; and milk was so scarce, that sometimes we were obliged to drink our tea without it.

One day perceiving a meadow on the side of the road, full of a flower which I took to be the crocus, I desired my servant to alight and pull some of them. He delivered the musquetoon to Joseph, who began to tamper with it, and off it went with a prodigious report, augmented by an eccho from the mountains that skirted the road. The mules were so frightened, that they went off at the gallop; and Joseph, for some minutes, could neither manage the reins, nor open his mouth. At length he recollected himself, and the cattle were stopt, by the assistance of the servant, to whom he delivered the musquetoon, with a significant shake of the head. Then alighting from the box, he examined the heads of his three mules, and kissed each of them in his turn. Finding they had received no damage, he came up to the coach, with a pale visage and staring eyes, and said it was God’s mercy he had not killed his beasts. I answered, that it was a greater mercy he had not killed his passengers; for the muzzle of the piece might have been directed our way as well as any other, and in that case Joseph might have been hanged for murder. “I had as good be hanged (said he) for murder, as be ruined by the loss of my cattle.” This adventure made such an impression upon him, that he recounted it to every person we met; nor would he ever touch the blunderbuss from that day. I was often diverted with the conversation of this fellow, who was very arch and very communicative. Every afternoon, he used to stand upon the foot-board, at the side of the coach, and discourse with us an hour together. Passing by the gibbet of Valencia, which stands very near the high-road, we saw one body hanging quite naked, and another lying broken on the wheel. I recollected, that Mandrin had suffered in this place, and calling to Joseph to mount the foot-board, asked if he had ever seen that famous adventurer. At mention of the name of Mandrin, the tear started in Joseph’s eye, he discharged a deep sigh, or rather groan, and told me he was his dear friend. I was a little startled at this declaration; however, I concealed my thoughts, and began to ask questions about the character and exploits of a man who had made such noise in the world.

He told me, Mandrin was a native of Valencia, of mean extraction: that he had served as a soldier in the army, and afterwards acted as maltotier, or tax-gatherer: that at length he turned contrebandier, or smuggler, and by his superior qualities, raised himself to the command of a formidable gang, consisting of five hundred persons well armed with carbines and pistols. He had fifty horses for his troopers, and three hundred mules for the carriage of his merchandize. His head-quarters were in Savoy: but he made incursions into Dauphine, and set the marechaussee at defiance. He maintained several bloody skirmishes with these troopers, as well as with other regular detachments, and in all those actions signalized himself by his courage and conduct. Coming up at one time with fifty of the marechaussee who were in quest of him, he told them very calmly, he had occasion for their horses and acoutrements, and desired them to dismount. At that instant his gang appeared, and the troopers complied with his request, without making the least opposition. Joseph said he was as generous as he was brave, and never molested travellers, nor did the least injury to the poor; but, on the contrary, relieved them very often. He used to oblige the gentlemen in the country to take his merchandize, his tobacco, brandy, and muslins, at his own price; and, in the same manner, he laid the open towns under contribution. When he had no merchandize, he borrowed money off them upon the credit of what he should bring when he was better provided. He was at last betrayed, by his wench, to the colonel of a French regiment, who went with a detachment in the night to the place where he lay in Savoy, and surprized him in a wood-house, while his people were absent in different parts of the country. For this intrusion, the court of France made an apology to the king of Sardinia, in whose territories he was taken. Mandrin being conveyed to Valencia, his native place, was for some time permitted to go abroad, under a strong guard, with chains upon his legs; and here he conversed freely with all sorts of people, flattering himself with the hopes of a pardon, in which, however, he was disappointed. An order came from court to bring him to his trial, when he was found guilty, and condemned to be broke on the wheel. Joseph said he drank a bottle of wine with him the night before his execution. He bore his fate with great resolution, observing that if the letter which he had written to the King had been delivered, he certainly should have obtained his Majesty’s pardon. His executioner was one of his own gang, who was pardoned on condition of performing this office. You know, that criminals broke upon the wheel are first strangled, unless the sentence imports, that they shall be broke alive. As Mandrin had not been guilty of cruelty in the course of his delinquency, he was indulged with this favour. Speaking to the executioner, whom he had formerly commanded, “Joseph (dit il), je ne veux pas que tu me touche, jusqu’a ce que je sois roid mort,” “Joseph,” said he, “thou shalt not touch me till I am quite dead.”— Our driver had no sooner pronounced these words, than I was struck with a suspicion, that he himself was the executioner of his friend Mandrin. On that suspicion, I exclaimed, “Ah! ah! Joseph!” The fellow blushed up to the eyes, and said, Oui, son nom etoit Joseph aussi bien que le mien, “Yes, he was called Joseph, as I am.” I did not think proper to prosecute the inquiry; but did not much relish the nature of Joseph’s connexions. The truth is, he had very much the looks of a ruffian; though, I must own, his behaviour was very obliging and submissive.

On the fifth day of our journey, in the morning, we passed the famous bridge at St. Esprit, which to be sure is a great curiosity, from its length, and the number of its arches: but these arches are too small: the passage above is too narrow; and the whole appears to be too slight, considering the force and impetuosity of the river. It is not comparable to the bridge at Westminster, either for beauty or solidity. Here we entered Languedoc, and were stopped to have our baggage examined; but the searcher, being tipped with a three-livre piece, allowed it to pass. Before we leave Dauphine, I must observe, that I was not a little surprized to see figs and chestnuts growing in the open fields, at the discretion of every passenger. It was this day I saw the famous Pont du Garde; but as I cannot possibly include, in this letter, a description of that beautiful bridge, and of the other antiquities belonging to Nismes, I will defer it till the next opportunity, being, in the mean time, with equal truth and affection — Dear Sir, Your obliged humble Servant.

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