Market Day at Pau by Anonymous
If you don't know where Pau is, do as I did when I first heard of
it,—look it up on some large map of France.
Down in the southeast corner, at the mouth of the Adour river, you
will see the city from which the bayonet is said to have received its
name; and if you move your finger along about an inch due east from
Bayonne you will be likely to pass it directly under Pau.
It is the capital of one of the finest departments of France, the
Basses-Pyrenees; and its mild, equable climate and charming scenery
have made it, for the last thirty years, a favorite winter resort for
invalids and pleasure-seekers.
As the capital of the old province of Béarn, and as the seat of the
ancient royal castle where flourished the Gastons and Marguerites,
and where Henri IV. of France was born, Pau has many interesting
historical associations, upon which, however, we must resolutely turn
our backs if we mean to go to market this morning.
Monday is always market-day at Pau, and then it is that the country
comes bodily in and takes possession of the town. At five o'clock in
the morning the rumbling of cart-wheels and the clatter of sabots
down in the cold gray streets announce the approach of a rustic army
from the villages round about. On they come from every quarter all
through the forenoon, and if we walk out anywhere—say to the Alléés
de Morlaäs, where we can sit on one of the benches under the trees and
gaze now and then at the distant snowy Pyrenees,—we shall see the
endless stream of market-people.
The men wear round woolen caps without visors, called the béret; a
short frock, usually of some coarse cotton material, which is gathered
so much about the neck as not to improve their stumpy figures; and
huge wooden shoes that rattle and thump along the pavements, bringing
with them on rainy days an incredible quantity of country mud.
The most noticeable feature in the dress of the women is the bright
foulard handkerchief that serves instead of hat or bonnet. It is
arranged according to the taste and age of the wearer, and is capable
of producing a wide range of effects.
The guide-book assures us that the paysannes walk barefoot on the
country roads; but, upon approaching the town, they cover their
wayworn feet with the cherished shoes and stockings that have thus
been spared from wear and tear.
On a cold spring morning we saw a company of women descending a
hill at Lourdes with enormous bundles of wood on their heads. As we
were pitying the bare feet that went toiling down the steep way, we
suddenly spied their shoes dangling from the fagots where they had
considerately placed them, to be out of harm.
The strength of these little peasant women is wonderful. They walk
off with grand strides, carrying heavy burdens on their heads, and
sometimes knitting as they go. Many of the young girls are very
pretty; but exposure and hard work soon change the fresh tint and the
graceful outlines to a brown wrinkled visage and a gaunt ungainly
Sitting here, we are attracted by a jaunty young creature tripping
along with a large, round, shallow basket of salad, or choux de
Bruxelles, on her head, carelessly steadying it with one hand, while
in the other she carries a pair of chickens or a basket of eggs. But
how can we see a pinched-looking woman tugging along under a big
bag of potatoes, or breaking stones on the road, without feeling
tired ourselves and sad? And neither the sadness nor the weariness
is lightened upon seeing, as we invariably do, that when a woman is
working with a man he generously gives her the heaviest end of the
The wood is brought in on clumsy carts, generally two-wheeled and
often covered. The oxen and cows that draw these carts have their
bodies draped with coarse linen covers, and across their heads is a
strip of sheep-skin, which is worn with the shaggy side out and the
skinny side in. M. Taine tells us in his book on the Pyrenees that
he saw the heads of the cattle protected by thread nets and ferns,
which, I trust is their usual summer coiffure; for in a country where,
in winter, gentlemen carry parasols and wear large white streamers
depending from their hats, to protect the head and back of the neck
from the too ardent rays of the sun, even the "patient ox" might
complain of the unfitness of a head-dress of sheep skin.
The driver of the ox-team is armed with a long stick, at the end of
which is an iron goad. This he uses either in guiding the cattle,
which is done by going in advance of them and stretching the stick
backward with a queer, stiff gesture, or in pricking and prodding the
poor creatures till they hardly know which way to turn. The cattle,
which are mostly of a light brown color, are very large and fine; but
it seems strange to us to see cows wearing the yoke.
But, O! the donkey! The wise, the tough, the musical, the
irresistible, the universal donkey! How shall I ever give you an
idea of what he becomes to an appreciative mind that has daily
opportunities of studying his "tricks and manners!"
Fancy one of these long-eared, solemn-eyed gentry, scarcely larger
than a good-sized Newfoundland dog jogging along with a double pannier
bulging at his sides and a fat market-woman on his back.
But the disproportion between the size of the beast and that of his
burden, and his gravity and circumspection, is scarcely funnier
here than when he is placed before a two-wheeled cart, a story and
a half higher than himself, and containing a man, a woman, a boy,
and a pig; sometimes cabbages and chickens, often two or three
inexperienced calves. And in the afternoon, when market is over, I
have often seen six or seven women huddled into one of these primitive
chariots, each provided with the inevitable stocking her tongue and
her knitting-needles keeping time as the cart goes tilting along over
the famous roads of the Basses-Pyrénées. The gay handkerchiefs of
the women, the purple, blue and gray stockings with their flashing
needles, and the huge brown loaves of bread sure to be protruding in
various quarters, made these groups, returning from market, most
Coming in from the Alléés de Morlaäs we find, as we approach the
Place des Eçoles, an animated scene. The broad sidewalk is lined
with rows of women selling vegetables, fruit, flowers, poultry and
eggs. The haggling of the buyers and the gibing of the venders, though
carried on in patois unintelligible to us, are expressed in tones
and accompanied by gestures that translate them quite effectively;
especially as not a market-day passes without a long recital from our
Catherine, illustrating the greed of the peasants and her own superior
"How much do you want for this chicken?"
"Keep your chicken for somebody see. I'll go to another."
"Stay! What will you give for it?"
"Get along with you!"
As Catherine eyes the chicken which she secretly admires and openly
abuses, another cook comes up and lays her hand on its comely breast.
It is a decisive moment, but Catherine is equal to the emergency.
"Stand off there! I'm here first."
Then, with a secret resolve that her demoiselles shall dine on that
little plump poulet, she offers fifty sous and carries off the
prize. To see her enter our salon bearing a waiter on which are a
dozen fine rosy apples and two large russet pears, with the question,
"Guess how much I paid for all?" written in every line of her shrewd
old face, is something worth coming to Europe for. To make a sharp
bargain, to cook a good dinner, and never to waste anything, these are
the aims of her life and the themes of her discourse.
Our snug appartement is opposite the Place des Eçoles, where the
wood and cattle are sold; and the first peep in the morning gives us
a picture, lively enough and foreign enough to make us look and look
again many times during the day, till late in the afternoon when the
Place is nearly bare; and the aspect of the few patient but rather
dejected-looking peasants whose wood has not yet found purchasers
almost tempts us to run over and buy a load or two, just for the
pleasure of sending the poor creatures home with lighter hearts and
heavier pockets. What would Catherine say to that, I wonder?
Besides the interest which we feel in the various natural hangers-on
of the wood-carts (and each one has from two to five of both sexes
and all sizes), we get no small amusement from their patrons, who
represent all sorts of townspeople, from the fat old woman of the
green grocery and sausage-shop over the way, who peddles with easy
affability among the market-people, to the lordly young Englishman
who dashes on to the Place with the air of a conquering hero, and
loftily indicates with his riding-whip the load that has the honor to
meet his approval.
Troops of frisky calves are scattered about, and groups of blue
blouses and red bérets are earnestly discussing the merits of
the unsuspecting innocents. More rarely a fine cow, or a yoke of
oxen, attracts a circle of connoisseurs; then the patois becomes
more fluent, and the gestures more animated, and the fists of the
interested parties are seen flourishing unpleasantly near the
disdainful noses of the critics.
The prolonged and penetrating squeal of that pig in the Rue des
Cultivateurs reminds me that this interesting animal figures largely
in the scenes of market-day. Pork being an important article of
peasant diet, Mr. Piggy is always abroad on Monday and contributes
largely to the general éclat.
The favorite way of transporting a moderate sized pig is to put him
about the neck, holding his hind feet with one hand and his forefeet
with the other. This method, though attended with some disadvantages,
such as the proximity of the squeal to the ear of the carrier, is, on
the whole, less worrying than that of tying a string to one of the
hind legs of his Porkship, this giving him a chance to pull his way
with more or less effect, while the peasant is frantically jerking in
the opposite direction.
Not infrequently a pig gets a ride home from market in the cart of
his new owner. Then, true to his nature and principles, he resists
the honor accorded him with the whole might of his legs and lungs; so
that, with a man at his hind legs, a woman at his left ear, and a boy
at his right fore leg, he is with difficulty assisted to his coach
and is held there, en route, by that "eternal vigilance" which is, in
more senses than one, "the price of liberty."
On the Rue Porte Neuve and near the Halle Neuve, in the centre of
the town, the venders of agricultural implements, kitchen hardware,
locks and keys, second-hand books, handkerchiefs, collars, cuffs,
hats, bracelets, rings, baskets, brooms, bottles, mouse-traps, and
other miscellaneous articles, display their goods, and a sudden shower
makes bad work in this busy community.
By the Halle Neuve is the fruit and vegetable market also, and
farther on, in the Rue de la Préfecture, we suddenly come upon a
hollow square inclosed on three sides by ancient looking buildings,
one of which is the Nieille Halle; and here are fish, poultry and
game, and the queerest-looking market-people in the whole town, it
seems to me.
There is a flower market on the Place Royal, and you will see the
Spanish women there, with their foulards and trinkets, to catch a few
sous from the rustics.
We cannot confine our interest to the market-folk, however, for
everybody is more or less picturesque in this strange land, and we are
never tired of saying, "See here," and "See there." Sometimes it is a
gray-haired spinner with her ancient distaff that attracts our notice,
as she sits in a sunny door-way or totters along the sidewalk; and
then there are the antics of these foreign children! Béarnais boys are
as fond of standing on their heads as their American brethren are, but
their large and heavy sabots are a great inconvenience.
Just look at those wooden shoes ranged along the sidewalk over there,
while the owners thereof are flourishing their emancipated heels in
These are some of the sights of a market-day at Pau; but how can you
ever get a notion of the sounds? For when we add to the market-day
hub-bub the various every-day street cries that mingle with it we have
a strange orchestra.
There are the charcoal men, who begin on a high key and drop with
an almost impossible interval to a prolonged, nasal, twanging note;
the old clo' men, whose patois for rags sounds so exactly like my
companion's name that she is sure they are after the dresses she is
economically wearing out at Pau; the chimney-sweeps; the jonchée
women, who sell cream cheese, rolled in what looks like onion-tops;
the roasted chestnut women, whose shrill "Tookow!" (patois for
"Tout chaud") suggests piping-hot chestnuts in bursting shells; and
the crockery and earthen men, who push their wares before them in long
shallow box-carts, and give, in a sustained recitative, the whole
catalogue of delf and pottery.
In the afternoon when the noise and stir are subsiding, we hear a few
notes, often repeated, from what I should like to call a shepherd's
pipe; only the instrument in question is not in the least like one,
but resembles more one of those little musical toys with a row of
holes cut along one side, upon which our children at home are so fond
of performing. However, our shepherd contrives to produce a pastoral
effect with his simple strain, and we favor the illusion of the pipe
by only listening to him, while we look at his pretty goats with long,
silky black hair. He leads them through the town twice a day, and
at the sound of his call those who wish goat's milk send out their
glasses and get it warm from a goat milked at the door. As his last
faint notes die out in the distance the rosy light fades from the
peaks of the Pyrenees; the sun has set, and market-day is over.