Around A Spring by Eliot Gregory

Story type: Essay

The greatest piece of good luck that can befall a Continental village is the discovery, within its limits, of a spring supplying some kind of malodorous water. From that moment the entire community, abandoning all other plans, give themselves over to hatching their golden egg, experience having taught them that no other source of prosperity can compare with a source thermale. If the water of the newfound spring, besides having an unpleasant smell, is also hot, then Providence has indeed blessed the township.

The first step is to have the fluid analyzed by a celebrity, and its medicinal qualities duly set forth in a certificate. The second is to get official recognition from the government and the authorization to erect a bath house. Once these preliminaries accomplished, the way lies plain before the fortunate village; every citizen, from the mayor down to the humblest laborer, devotes himself to solving the all-important problem how to attract strangers to the place and keep and amuse them when they have been secured.

Multicolored pamphlets detailing the local attractions are mailed to the four corners of the earth, and brilliant chromos of the village, with groups of peasants in the foreground, wearing picturesque costumes, are posted in every available railway station and booking-office, regardless of the fact that no costumes have been known in the neighborhood for half a century, except those provided by the hotel proprietors for their housemaids. A national dress, however, has a fine effect in the advertisement, and gives a local color to the scene. What, for instance, would Athens be without that superb individual in national get-up whom one is sure to see before the hotel on alighting from the omnibus? I am convinced that he has given as much pleasure as the Acropolis to most travellers; the knowledge that the hotel proprietors share the expenses of his keep and toilet cannot dispel the charm of those scarlet embroideries and glittering arms.

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After preparing their trap, the wily inhabitants of a new watering-place have only to sit down and await events. The first people to appear on the scene are, naturally, the English, some hidden natural law compelling that race to wander forever in inexpensive by-ways and serve as pioneers for other nations. No matter how new or inaccessible the spring, you are sure to find a small colony of Britons installed in the half-finished hotels, reading week-old editions of the Times, and grumbling over the increase in prices since the year before.

As soon as the first stray Britons have developed into an “English colony,” the municipality consider themselves authorized to construct a casino and open avenues, which are soon bordered by young trees and younger villas. In the wake of the English come invalids of other nationalities. If a wandering “crowned head” can be secured for a season, a great step is gained, as that will attract the real paying public and the Americans, who as a general thing are the last to appear on the scene.

At this stage of its evolution, the “city fathers” build a theatre in connection with their casino, and (persuading the government to wink at their evasion of the gambling laws) add games of chance to the other temptations of the place.

There is no better example of the way a spring can be developed by clever handling, and satisfactory results obtained from advertising and judicious expenditure, than Aix-les-Bains, which twenty years ago was but a tiny mountain village, and to-day ranks among the wealthiest and most brilliant eaux in Europe. In this case, it is true, they had tradition to fall back on, for Aquæ Gratinæ was already a favorite watering-place in the year 30 B.C., when Cæsar took the cure.

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There is little doubt in my mind that when the Roman Emperor first arrived he found a colony of spinsters and retired army officers (from recently conquered Britain) living around this spring in popinæ (which are supposed to have corresponded to our modern boarding-house), wearing waterproof togas and common-sense cothurni, with double cork soles.

The wife of another Cæsar fled hither in 1814. The little inn where she passed a summer in the company of her one-eyed lover-while the fate of her husband and son was being decided at Vienna and Waterloo-is still standing, and serves as the annex of a vast new hotel.

The way in which a watering-place is “run” abroad, where tourists are regarded as godsends, to be cherished, spoiled, and despoiled, is amusingly different from the manner of our village populations when summer visitors (whom they look upon as natural enemies) appear on the scene. Abroad the entire town, together with the surrounding villages, hamlets, and farmhouses, rack their brains and devote their time to inventing new amusements for the visitor, and original ways of enticing the gold from his pocket-for, mind you, on both continents the object is the same. In Europe the rural Machiavellis have had time to learn that smiling faces and picturesque surroundings are half the battle.

Another point which is perfectly understood abroad is that a cure must be largely mental; that in consequence boredom retards recovery. So during every hour of the day and evening a different amusement is provided for those who feel inclined to be amused. At Aix, for instance, Colonne’s orchestra plays under the trees at the Villa des Fleurs while you are sipping your after-luncheon coffee. At three o’clock “Guignol” performs for the youngsters. At five o’clock there is another concert in the Casino. At eight o’clock an operetta is given at the villa, and a comedy in the Casino, both ending discreetly at eleven o’clock. Once a week, as a variety, the park is illuminated and fireworks help to pass the evening.

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If neither music nor Guignol tempts you, every form of trap from a four-horse break to a donkey-chair (the latter much in fashion since the English queen’s visit) is standing ready in the little square. On the neighboring lake you have but to choose between a dozen kinds of boats. The hire of all these modes of conveyance being fixed by the municipality, and plainly printed in boat or carriage, extortions or discussions are impossible. If you prefer a ramble among the hills, the wily native is lying in wait for you there also. When you arrive breathless at your journey’s end, a shady arbor offers shelter where you may cool off and enjoy the view. It is not by accident that a dish of freshly gathered strawberries and a bowl of milk happen to be standing near by.

When bicycling around the lake you begin to feel how nice a half hour’s rest would be. Presto! a terrace overhanging the water appears, and a farmer’s wife who proposes brewing you a cup of tea, supplementing it with butter and bread of her own making. Weak human nature cannot withstand such blandishments. You find yourself becoming fond of the people and their smiling ways, returning again and again to shores where you are made so welcome. The fact that “business” is at the bottom of all this in no way interferes with one’s enjoyment. On the contrary, to a practical mind it is refreshing to see how much can be made of a little, and what a fund of profit and pleasure can be extracted from small things, if one goes to work in the right way.

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The trick can doubtless be overdone: at moments one feels the little game is worked a bit too openly. The other evening, for instance, when we entered the dining-room of our hotel and found it decorated with flags and flowers, because, forsooth, it was the birthday of “Victoria R. and I.,” when champagne was offered at dessert and the band played “God Save the Queen,” while the English solemnly stood up in their places, it did seem as if the proprietor was poking fun at his guests in a sly way.

I was apparently the only person, however, who felt this. The English were much flattered by the attention, so I snubbed myself with the reflection that if the date had been July 4, I doubtless should have considered the flags and music most à propos.

There are also moments when the vivid picturesqueness of this place comes near to palling on one. Its beauty is so suspiciously like a set scene that it gives the impression of having been arranged by some clever decorator with an eye to effect only.

One is continually reminded of that inimitable chapter in Daudet’s Tartarin sur les Alpes, when the hero discovers that all Switzerland is one enormous humbug, run to attract tourists; that the cataracts are “faked,” and avalanches arranged beforehand to enliven a dull season. Can anything be more delicious than the disillusion of Tartarin and his friends, just back from a perilous chamois hunt, on discovering that the animal they had exhausted themselves in following all day across the mountains, was being refreshed with hot wine in the kitchen of the hotel by its peasant owner?

When one visits the theatrical abbey across the lake and inspects the too picturesque tombs of Savoy’s sovereigns, or walks in the wonderful old garden, with its intermittent spring, the suspicion occurs, in spite of one’s self, that the whole scene will be folded up at sunset and the bare-footed “brother” who is showing us around with so much unction will, after our departure, hurry into another costume, and appear later as one of the happy peasants who are singing and drinking in front of that absurdly operatic little inn you pass on the drive home.

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There is a certain pink cottage, with a thatched roof and overhanging vines, about which I have serious doubts, and fully expect some day to see Columbine appear on that pistache-green balcony (where the magpie is hanging in a wicker cage), and, taking Arlequin’s hand, disappear into the water-butt while Clown does a header over the half-door, and the cottage itself turns into a gilded coach, with Columbine kissing her hand from the window.

A problem which our intelligent people have not yet set themselves to solve, is being worked out abroad. The little cities of Europe have discovered that prosperity comes with the tourist, that with increased facilities of communication the township which expends the most in money and brains in attracting rich travellers to its gates is the place that will grow and prosper. It is a simple lesson, and one that I would gladly see our American watering-places learn and apply.

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