I think it was 'La Pausa', the C. N. Williamson's beautiful home in Roquebrune, that finally caused us to make up our minds to have a kind of secondary resting-place in this lovely part of the world.
After the European monetary debâcle, following the Armistice of 1918, I had lost the whole of the private fortune which I had inherited in 1906--the fortune round which imaginative journalists had woven such a wonderful romance of the lost heiress only traced through the publication of her book, A Son of the People. Well! that fortune came as unexpectedly in 1906 as it vanished in 1918. It vanished owing to the economic collapse of Hungary which followed that of Germany: the Hungarian kronen was devalued as the German mark had already been. Ah, well! keep on smiling was always our motto, and though we had something to lament over, we had plenty to be thankful for. My husband was anything but a poor man and I could still write; there were royalties galore on books and plays and cinema still to come.
It was then that we decided to buy a villa in Monte Carlo. We had tested the amenities of that delightful place and found them very much to our taste. The climate, for one thing, was a great attraction, perhaps the greatest, for my husband had in recent years developed a very delicate throat and English winters and English springs were 'playing old Harry' with that throat. So climate was the first attraction and inclination a good second.
At first we had great difficulty in finding a villa that would meet all our requirements. We wanted to be in the centre of town, we wanted a garden, we wanted this, that and the other, and there were very few (hardly any) villas to be sold in those days. We could not then spare the time to run down to Monte Carlo and villa-hunt for ourselves. Through the kindness of Mrs. French, whose villa we had rented in 1915, we heard of the Villa Bijou. Our kind friend viewed and rented it for us.
She wrote to say that in her opinion it was just the house we were looking for. It wold require many alterations and improvements: the garden was there but would have to be made anew; the number of rooms was adequate and . . . it was for sale. But the matter was urgent, the villa would be snapped up if we did not hurry. Well, we hurried by telegram! We wired our acceptance of the price asked for the house and Mrs. French wired the reply that the house was ours; she had paid the deposit asked for, clinching the bargain.
There was, of course, a great risk in buying a house one had never seen, but we trusted in the taste of our friend who knew our taste, and knew Monte Carlo out and out: she had lived there for over twenty years. But never for a moment did we regret our bargain. In the course of one's life one commits more than one act of folly which one has to regret later on, but our purchase of the Villa Bijou (a pig in a poke as it were) was, as it turned out, an act of supreme wisdom.
Six months later we went South to view our bargain. What we saw was a pink house standing square inside a ring fence with a tall iron gate, and in shape like an inverted match-box: at right angles to the house but with no direct access to it. There was a sort of annexe which in its day had consisted of stables down below and four or five small rooms on the floor above. That house now, with its annexe, is a thing of beauty, but it took some time to effect the transformation. We began by turning three small rooms of the annexe into a large studio with a North light: we connected the annexe with the house by a short oak staircase, and transformed the inverted match-box by adding a porch, two terraces and a loggia till all its ugly squareness had been transmuted into beautiful lines. In fact what we did not do with the inverted match-box would take too long to relate.
Of equal interest to us was the question of the garden. As a matter of fact there was nothing there that could be called a garden. There were a few seedy looking orange trees all overgrown and smothered in scarlet geraniums. There was a huge ficus tree in the wrong place, a pepper tree also in the wrong place, and the angle between the house and annexe was just a huge pebbled court where presumably carriages driving through the iron gate were turned, and horses groomed in front of the stables. Well! that pebbled court is now an Italian garden with--in the centre--a pond and a dear little marble fountain of the Florentine bambino hugging a fish--who spouts water to the delight of the wild birds who come to preen their feathers and have their daily bath under its pleasant trickle. The south wall of the sunken garden is covered for ten months of the year by a gorgeous mauve curtain of that lovely Lantana Delicatissima, which begins to bloom early in March and is still in full bloom at Christmas. Lantanas do marvellously on that wall because it is in full sun all the year. There is a gorgeous red one which we call General Du Cane, and a daffodil yellow, but the Delicatissima reigns supreme.
On the other hand bougainvillea (usually so abundant in this part of the world, even running wild on the rocks in many places) does not do very well with us. We have sacrificed the best wall to the Lantanas, and the two pergolas are given over to the roses. The finest rose season here is April and early May, after which the sun is too hot for those dear things and the weather more often than not too dry. (I have known as many as ten months without a drop of rain in Monte Carlo.) Against that the second period of blooming--the autumn--lasts well from October until Christmas.
It takes an English amateur gardener, such as we both were, some time to learn what will simply not be coaxed into luxuriance; for Monte Carlo is altogether different from other gardens on the Riviera, like Beaulieu, Mentone-Garavan and so on. It is built on rock and the drainage question, especially for roses becomes acute. But in the rock there are crevices and hollows. We imported good soil from Garavan to cover the garden to a depth of 60 centimetres and trusted to luck that we would hit on such few crevices as there were that would accommodate the roots of climbing roses for two pergolas.
The two pergolas indeed have done very well. One of these goes from the outside gate to the new porch. Madame Abel Chatenay, Noella Nabonand, and Paul's Scarlet Climber make a lovely, sweet-scented corridor from the gate right up to the front door. The other pergola is at the south end of the garden, parallel with the containing wall there. Here Folette is a dream of beauty in April in juxtaposition with my favourite Eglantine. The climbing Mrs. Herbert Stevens is in its gorgeous second blooming in November right up till Christmas. We have to avoid the Wichurianas. They are at their best much later in the spring when we are already on the wing for England, and offer no autumnal blooming.
For this same reason we never attempted to plant the perennials which I love, though I have often sighed for the blues of delphinium which would be such victorious rivals to the blue of the sky and of the Mediterranean, and our garden is too small for the planting of the gorgeous Ischium in sufficient masses such as it demands for the proper display of its wonderful colouring.
I hope I have not tried the patience of those of my readers who are not garden fans by this long dissertation on our efforts. There is just one feature in our garden which I think is interesting from an almost historical point of view. The olive trees of the South of France are larger and more imposing--they certainly are older--than those of Northern Italy (one notices this difference directly one has crossed the frontier). The reason may be that the trees in Italy were planted closer together originally and had not the same chance of development. They form clumps here and there. A number of them have been made to enter into the composition of Riviera gardens: their age is determined by the size and condition of their trunks and by the formation of their growth and of their roots. We found a most venerable old fellow in our bit of garden on a small eminence in the very 'rightest' of positions. Experts in arboriculture assure us that it is well over a thousand years old.
And here legend has stepped in. This is a country of legends, and here is another very pretty one. It is generally believed that Saint Paul rested under that tree when proselytizing on the shores of the Mediterranean. Some pious old folk go even further and will have it that our Lord also wandered along these shores preaching the Word or God and that He, too, rested under that solitary giant tree. So poetic and naïve, like all the legends of Provence! There is a deep hollow in the trunk at about eight feet from the ground and inside it our predecessor (an old lady who had been Maid of Honour to the Empress Eugénie) had arranged a small shrine with the statuette of St. Anthony of Padua, a toy candelabra and a couple of small china pots with china flowers in them. Very pretty and charming. We never interfered with it. It is there to this day.
There are few things in life more interesting than watching the development of a city from waste land to the slowly spreading accumulation of street upon street and houses upon houses. When first we came on a visit to Monte Carlo, in 1915, the enormous agglomeration of houses down in the valley called the Condamine between the rock of Monaco and the heights of Monte Carlo had not yet been started. There were a few streets--one important one which was the direct tram road to Nice--there were one or two unpretentious hotels, there was a tennis court on which only the local people played, and there was the port; as for the rest, there were olive trees isolated or in groups through which a few palm trees raised their melancholy heads.
It was after 1918 that the land butcher and the builder got to work, and the grove of olive trees where half an acre of land was then worth a few shillings, rose in price within a couple of years to as many pounds, and by 1920 to as many £100-notes. Soon land was unobtainable save at an exorbitant price, dearer than freehold land in the City of London. The curious part about this fantastic rise in value is that no original proprietor--they were peasants for the most part--made a fortune out of these transactions. They sold their bit of land at the first small rise in the price, the buyer resold within a few weeks at another rise, and this buying and reselling went on in that way month by month, almost week by week, always with a small profit, but never with a big one. The French peasant is cautious; when he saw his profit he was content to take it however small it was.
Now the whole of the Condamine is like a huge rabbit-warren and where from the terrace of our villa we looked down once on the soft grey-green waves of olive trees, we see houses upon houses so closely built one against or over the other that they seem as if they were about to push one another over the slope of the hill into the port. At one time, while this frenzy of building was going on, we felt akin to despair. What would this once so picturesque, so tranquil, Monte Carlo come to? The quarter where our Villa Bijou is situated is luckily quite immune from the activities of the speculative builder. It is, if I may so call it, the Mayfair of Monte Carlo, but outside its circumference which is not extensive, rabbit warrens abound. There seems to be no artistic control over the designs (save the mark) of new buildings: they are no longer inverted match-boxes but just immense blocks of stone with row upon row of small windows and mean-looking front doors, Germanic in character and wholly void of artistic features; just hideous skyscrapers which mar the beauty of distant mountains and of forest land.
Well! as I said before it was interesting to watch this development of waste land into an important city. Interesting, but oh, really heart-breaking. The place might have been made so beautiful; Nature had done her best for old Monaco, had expended her priceless treasures of beautiful colour, of mountains bathed in mists of rose and purple and delicate grey, of blue sea and sky and the varied greens of olive and palm, of orange and lemon with their shiny metallic leaves, of tall cypresses and distant horizons of silvery moonlight and the glint of sunshine through the trees, of fiery sunsets and of pearly dawns. Yes, Nature had been more than kind, and man did his best to spoil those priceless gifts which she had so lavishly showered on this privileged corner of the earth. Ah, well!!