Curious enough is this record in earthenware, one stormy day after another being thus commemorated; and perhaps more curious still is the evident care with which these fragile objects have been preserved. Throughout the Napoleonic era they might pass—had not gold pieces then on one side the portrait of "Napoleon Empereur," on the obverse "Republique Francais"?—but when Louis XVIII was brought back by his foreign friends, how was it that there came no general smashing, a great flinging of revolutionary potsherds to the dunghill? Safe enough now is the Nivernais collection, under the roof of the Ducal Palace, the rude designs and commonness of the ware strikingly contrasted with the exquisite things around.
In close proximity to these cheap plates, dedicated to the Phrygian cap and sans-culottism, are the very choicest specimens of Nevers faience of priceless value. Why the municipality, as a rule so generous towards the public, should thus inconveniently house its treasure, is inconceivable.
The museum is reached by a long spiral staircase, without banister or support, and a false step must certainly result in a broken leg, or, perhaps, neck! The room also contains a striking portrait of Theodore de Beze, the great French reformer, who, then an aged man, penned a letter, sublime in its force and simplicity, to Henry IV., conjuring him not to abandon the Protestant faith. The mention of this fact recalls an interesting experience. I here allude to the incontestable advance of Protestantism in France. The traveller whose acquaintance with the country began a quarter of a century ago, cannot fail to be impressed with this fact. Alike in towns large and small, new places of worship have sprung up, Nevers now possessing an Evangelical church. And good was it to hear the appreciation of the little Protestant community from my Catholic landlady.
"Yes," she said, "the Protestants here are worthy of all respect (dignes gens) and the pastor also; I esteem him much." Evidently the Lemaitre-Coppee-Deroulede dictum, "Only the Catholic can be called a Frenchman," is not accepted at Nevers.
In dazzlingly brilliant weather, and amid glowing scenery, we continued our journey to Moulins, as we travelled by rail, and not by road unable to identify "the little opening in the road leading to a thicket" where Sterne discovered Maria. Has anyone ever identified the spot I wonder, poplar, small brook and the rest?
Too soon were we also for "the heyday of the vintage, when Nature is pouring her abundance into everyone's lap." For the vintage, indeed, one must go farther. Sterne must have been thinking of Burgundy when he penned that line, or the phylloxera has brought about a transformation, vineyards here being changed into pastures. The scenery of the Allier, like that around Autun, recalls many parts of England. Meadows set around with hedges; little rises of green hill here and there; cattle browsing by quiet streams; just such pictures as we may see in our own Midlands. I well remember a remark of the late Philip Gilbert Hamerton on this subject. We were strolling near his home, in the neighbourhood of Autun, one day, when he pointed to the landscape over against us.
"How like that is to many an English scene," he said; "and maybe it was the English aspect of this region that tempted me to settle here." I had paid Moulins a hasty visit many years before, but, unlike Nevers and so many French towns, the chef-lieu of the Allier does not improve upon further acquaintance. And I surmise, that such is the impression of my country people generally. English travellers must be few and far between at Moulins, or why should the appearance of two English ladies attract so much curiosity? Wherever we went, the good folks of Moulins, alike rich and poor, turned round to have a good look at us, even stopping short to stare. All this was done without any rudeness or remark, but such extraordinary behaviour can only be accounted for by the foregoing supposition. For some reason or other our compatriots do not, like Sterne and Maria go to Moulins.
Why should an essentially aristocratic place be so ill-kept, not to say dirty? The town is no centre of industry. Tall factory chimneys do not disfigure its silhouette or blacken its walls. Handsome equipages enliven the streets. But the municipality, like certain saints of old, seem to have taken vows of perpetual uncleanliness. Alike the scavenger's broom and the dust-cart appear to be unknown.
Whilst a riverside walk at Nevers presents nothing but cheerful bustle and an aspect of prosperity, here you approach the Allier through scenes of squalor and torpid neglect. The poorer inhabitants, too, are very un-French in appearance, wanting that personal tidiness characteristic of their country people in general. An aristocratic place, means an Ultramontane place, and every third man you meet in Moulins wears a soutane. What so many cures, Jesuits and Christian Brothers can find to do passes the ordinary comprehension.
However interesting twins may be in the human family, monumental duality is far from successful. Unfortunately for this delightfully picturesque old town, its graceful Cathedral has, in the grand new church of Sacre-Coeur, a double. But—
"As moonlight unto sunlight, and as water unto wine,"
is the second self, the never to be obliterated shadow of the first and far more beautiful church.
Two towers of equal height, twice two spires like as cherries and in close juxtaposition rise above the town, an ensemble spoiling the symmetry of outline and general effect.
How much better off was Moulins when, instead of four spires, she gloried in two? Then, of a verity, the city would have presented as noble a view as those of La Charite and Nevers from the Loire.
The ancient chateau now used as a prison and the Jacquemart or clock tower are rare old bits of architecture, of themselves worth the journey to Moulins. Jacquemart, it may be here explained, is a corruption of Jacques Marques, the name of a famous Flemish clockmaker who lived in the fourteenth century. Amongst other achievements of this artist is the clock of Notre Dame, Dijon, as curious in its way as the still more celebrated cock-crowing time-piece of Strasburg, and declared by Froissart to be the wonder of Christendom. World-wide became the reputation of Jacques Marques, and thus it came about that clock towers generally were called after his masterpieces.
On my former hurried visit to Moulins, as was the case with my predecessor, Arthur Young over a hundred years before, "other occupations" had "driven even Maria and the poplar from my head, and left me no room for the Tombeau de Montmorenci." In other words, I had visited Rome without seeing the Pope.
On this second, and more leisurely visit, I had ample opportunity of making up for the omission. Truly, the tomb of the last Montmorency deserves a deliberate examination. It is one of the most sumptuous monuments in the world and as a testimony of wifely devotion worthy to be ranked with that of the Carian Queen to her lord, the Mausolus, whose name is perpetuated in the word mausoleum.
French history cannot be at everyone's fingers' ends, so a word here about the last of the Montmorencys, victim not so much of Richelieu's policy as of a kinsman's meanness.
When the dashing, devil-me-care, hitherto fortunate Henri de Montmorency, Marshal of France and Governor of Languedoc, plotted against Richelieu or rather against the Royal supremacy, it was mainly at the instigation of Gaston of Orleans. No more abject figure in French annals than this unworthy son of the great Gascon, Henri IV., thus portrayed by one whose tongue was as sharp as his sword: "Gaston of Orleans," wrote Richelieu, "engaged in every enterprise because he had not the will to resist persuasion, dishonourably drawing back from want of courage to support his associates."
In the conspiracy of Montmorency, Gaston had played the part of instigator, leaving the other to his fate as soon as the situation became perilous. Every effort was made to save the duke, but in vain, and at the age of thirty-seven he ended a brilliant, adventuresome life on the scaffold at Toulouse.
One thought was uppermost in my mind when, a few years ago, I visited that city, the only French city that welcomed the Inquisition. As I stood in the elegant Capitol, musing on Montmorency's story, it occurred to me how few of us realise what a respecter of persons was French law under the ancien regime. Hard as seems the fate of this dashing young duke, we must remember what would have been his punishment, but for his titles of nobility. Death swift and sudden, in other words, by decapitation, was the choicest prerogative of the nobility; tortures before and after condemnation, breaking on the wheel, burning alive, and other hideous ends, being the lot of the people.
This monument, so noteworthy alike from a historic and artistic point of view, was saved from destruction by ready wit. When, in the ferment of revolution, the iconoclastic spirit had got the upper hand, a citizen of Moulins met a mob, bent on destroying what they supposed to be the tomb of some hated grand seigneur, oppressor of the poor. Following the rabble to the convent, no sooner did he see the mallet and hammer raised than this worthy bourgeois, who himself deserves a monument, shouted, "Hands off, citizens! Yonder reposes no aristocrat, but as good a citizen as any man-jack of you, aye, who had the honour of losing his head for having conspired against a King."
The crowd melted away without a word, the monument remains intact, and generations have had bequeathed to them an example of what presence of mind may effect, not with nerve, sinew, or bodily prowess, but with the tongue. The Convent of the Visitation, to which Montmorency's widow retired, and in the chapel of which she raised this memorial, is now converted into a Lycee. It is a handsome building and was built by Madame de Chantal, foundress of the Order of Visitadines, or nuns whose office it was to visit the sick. This pious lady, the friend of St. Francois de Sales, and herself canonised by Pope Benoit XIV., was the bosom friend of Felicia Orsini, Montmorency's wife, who succeeded her as Superior of the convent on her death.
But even an abbess, who had taken the veil, could not refuse visits, some of which must have been as a second entering of iron into this proud woman's soul. The coward Gaston, when passing through Moulins, sought an interview. Richelieu, also, whose emissary received the following message: "Tell your master, that my tears reply for me and that I am his humble servant." Years after, Louis XIV. visited the once beautiful and high-spirited Italian, now an aged abbess occupying a bare cell and from his lips, despot and voluptuary though he was, might always be expected the right word in the right place. "Madame," he said, on taking leave, "we may learn something here. I need not ask you to pray for the King."
But interest in personalities is leading me from what I have set myself to describe, namely, portraiture in marble. For this magnificent work thus perpetuates the last of the Montmorencys and his wife as they were when separated for ever in their prime. Imposing although the monument is as a whole, these two figures in white marble, standing out against a dark background, engross attention. The entire work covers the wall behind the high altar, the sculptures being in pure white marble, the framework in black. Dismissing the niched Mars and Hercules on the one side, the allegorised Religion and Charity on the other, we study the central figures both offering interest of quite different kind.
Why a dashing soldier and courtier of the Renaissance should be represented in the guise of a Roman warrior, is an anomaly, irreconcilable as that of pagan gods and the personification of Christian attributes here placed vis-a-vis. Perhaps the grief-stricken wife, who was, as it appears, of a highly romantic and adventuresome turn, wished thus to commemorate the heroic qualities of her husband; she might also have wished to dissociate him altogether from his own time, a period of which, in her eyes, he would be the victim. Be this as it may, the Roman undress and accoutrements do not harmonise with a physiognomy essentially French and French of a given epoch. Whilst the interest aroused by the Duchess's effigy is purely artistic, that of her husband excites curiosity rather than admiration. The head is strangely poised, much as if the artist intended to suggest the fact of decapitation; obliquity of vision, a defect hereditary in the Montmorencys, is also indicated, adding singularity. The half-recumbent figure by the Duke's side, is of rare pathos and beauty. Almost angelic in its resignation and religious fervour is the upturned face. The drapery, too, shows classic grace and simplicity, as strongly contrasted with the martial travesty opposite as are the two countenances in expression.
Long will art-lovers linger before this monument raised by wifely devotion, a monument, with so many another, perpetuating rather the devotion of the survivor than claims on posterity of the dead. And let not hasty travellers follow Arthur Young's example, jotting down, after a visit to Moulins, "No room for the Tombeau de Montmorenci."
SOUVIGNY AND SENS.
A quarter of an hour by rail, an hour and a quarter by road, from Moulins lies Souvigny, the cradle of the Bourbons, and as interesting and delightful a little excursion as travellers can desire. On a glowing September morning the scenery of the Allier looked its very best. Never as long as I live shall I forget the beauty of that drive. Lightest, loveliest cumuli floated athwart a pure, not too dazzlingly blue sky, before us stretched avenue after avenue of poplar or plane trees, veritable aisles of green letting in the azure, reminding me of the famous Hobbema in our National Gallery. At many points the landscape recalled our native land; but for the white oxen of the Morvan, we might have fancied ourselves in Sussex or the Midlands. And cloudage, to borrow an expression of Coleridge, suggested England, too. Clouds and skies of the Midlands, none more poetic or pictorial throughout England seemed here—those skies above the vast sweeps of undulating chalk having a peculiar depth and tenderness, the clouds a marvellous brilliance, transparence, and variety of form! So beautiful are those cloud-pictures that we hardly needed beauty below. Here on the road to Moulins we had both, the landscape, if not romantic or striking, being rich in pastoral charm. Arthur Young, who looked at every bit of country first and foremost from the farmer's point of view, was so much struck with the neighbourhood of Moulins that, but for the Revolution, he would very probably have become a French landowner. Just eight miles from the city he visited in August, 1789, an estate was offered for sale by its possessor, the Marquis de Goutte. "The finest climate in France, perhaps in Europe," he wrote, "a beautiful and healthy country, excellent roads, and navigation to Paris; wine, game, fish, and everything appears on the table except the produce of the tropics; a good house, a fine garden, with ready markets for every kind of produce; and, above all the rest, three thousand acres of enclosed land, capable in a very little time of being, without expense, quadrupled in its produce—altogether formed a picture sufficient to tempt a man who had been twenty-five years in the constant practice of husbandry adapted to the soil." The price of the whole was only thirteen thousand and odd pounds, and the seller took care to explain that "all seigneurial rights haute justice" (that is to say, the privilege of hanging poachers, and others, at the chateau gates), were included in the purchase money. But the country was already in a ferment, and had our countryman struck a bargain then and there, the last-named extras would have proved a dead letter. Seigneurial rights were being abolished, or rather surrendered, at the very time that this transaction was under consideration. As Arthur Young tells us, he might as well have asked for an elephant at Moulins as for a newspaper. No one knew, or apparently cared to know, what was taking place in Paris. On asking his landlady for a newspaper, she replied she had none, they were too dear. Whereupon the irate traveller wrote down in his diary: "it is a great pity that there is not a camp of brigands in your coffee room, Madame Bourgeau."
This part of France is not a region of prosperous peasant farmers, nor is it a chess-board of tiny crops, the four or five acre freeholds of small owners cut up into miniature fields. I had a long talk with a countryman, and he informed me that, as in Arthur Young's time, the land belongs to large owners, and is still, as in his time, cultivated by metayers on the half-profit system. At the present day, however, another class has sprung up, that of tenant farmers on a considerable scale; these, in their turn, sublet to peasants who give their labour and with whom they divide the profits. Now, the half-profit system does certainly answer elsewhere; in the Indre, for example, it has proved a stepping-stone to the position of small capitalist. Here I learned, with regret, that such is not the case. Land, even in the highly-favoured Allier, cannot afford a triple revenue. In the Indre, on the contrary, there is no intermediary between land-owners and metayers, the former even selling small holdings to their labourers as soon as they have saved a little capital.
"No; folks are not prosperous hereabouts," said my informant. "There are no manufacturers at Moulins to enrich the people, and, what with high rents and low prices, the half-profit system does not pay. If money is made, it is by the tenant-farmer, not by the metayer." Curious and instructive is the fact that the most Catholic and aristocratic centres in France should often be the poorest; Moulins and the Allier afford but one example out of many.
A beautiful drive of an hour and a quarter brought us within sight of Souvigny. Towering above the bright landscape rose the Abbey Church, its sober dun, red and brown hues, the quaint houses of similar colour huddled around it, contrasted with the dazzling brightness of sky and verdure.
Still more striking the contrast between the pile so majestic and surroundings so homely! Here, as at La Charite, nothing is in keeping with the mass of architecture, which, in its apogee, stood for the town itself, what of town, indeed, there was being the merest accessory, inevitable but unimposing entourage, growing up bit by bit. The present population of Souvigny is something over three thousand, doubtless, as in the case of La Charite, less than that of its former monastery and dependencies. As we wind upwards, thus flanking the town and abbey, we realise the superb position of this cradle and mausoleum of the Bourbons. For Souvigny was both. Two thousand and odd years ago, here, in the very heart of France, Adhemar, a brave soldier, nothing more, became the first "Sire de Bourbon," Charles le Simple having given him the fief of Bourbon as a reward for military services, its chief establishing himself at Souvigny, and of course founding a religious house. The Benedictine abbey, being enriched with the bones of two saints, former Abbots of Cluny, became a famous pilgrimage. Adhemar's successors transferred their seat of seigneurial government to Bourbon l'Archimbault, but for centuries here they found their last resting-place, and here they are commemorated in marble.
Indescribably picturesque is this whilom capital of the tiny feudal kingdom; topsy-turvy, higgledy-piggledy, coated of many colours are its zig-zag little streets, one house tumbling on the back of its neighbour, another having contrived to wedge itself between two of portlier bulk, a third coolly taking possession of some inviting frontage, shutting out its fellow's light, air, and sunshine; here, meeting the eye, breakneck alley, there aerial terrace, and on all sides architectural reminders of the Souvigny passed away, the Souvigny once so splendid and important, now reduced to nothingness, as is, politically speaking, the so-called House of France.
The Abbey Church, like that of La Charite, shows a mixture of many styles, the general effect being magnificent in the extreme. Throughout eastern France you find no more imposing facade. But, as observes M. Emile Montegut, in the work before quoted, the church has been created as Nature creates a soil, each age contributing its layer; Byzantine, Roman, Gothic, each style is here seen, the latter in its purity.
Whilst the church itself stands taut and trim, a mass of sculptured masonry in rich browns and reds, the interior shows melancholy dilapidation. But, indeed, for the stern lessons of history, how sad were the spectacle of these mutilated effigies in marble, exquisite sculptures when fresh from the artist's hand, to-day torsos so hideously hacked and hewn as hardly to look human! We cannot, however, forget that the history of races, as of nations and individuals, is retributive. When the 'Roi-Soleil,' that incarnation of the Bourbon spirit, was so inflated with his own personality as to forbid the erection of any statue throughout France but his own, he paved the way for the revolutionary iconoclasts of a century later. It was simply a recurrence of the old fatality, the inevitable moral, since History began.
For here, defaced to such a point that sculptures they can be called no longer, are memorialised not only Louis XIV.'s ancestors, but his offspring, namely, Louise Marie, one of his seven children by Madame de Montespan, all, as we know, with those of Madame de la Valliere, legitimised, ennobled and enriched. Pierre de Beaujeu, husband of the great Anne of France, was also buried here. Anne it was who, on the death of Louis XI., governed France with all her father's astuteness, but without his cruelty, and pleasant and comforting it is to find that Duke Pierre, her husband, seconded her in every way, himself remaining in the background, acting to perfection the difficult role of Prince Consort. The sight of these once exquisite marbles may perhaps awaken in other minds the reflection that crossed my own. Heretical as I shall seem, I venture to express the opinion, that in such cases one of two courses are advisable, either the removal of the torsos, or restoration; why should not some genius be able in this field to do what Viollet le Duc has so successfully achieved in another? But for that great architect, the cathedral of Moulins—and how many other beautiful French churches?—would long ago have tumbled to pieces, been handed over as storage to corn merchants, or brewers! Is it so much more difficult to restore a marble effigy, whether of human being or animal, than a facade or an altar-piece? If impossible, then, I say, let broken marbles like those of Souvigny be hidden from view.
The agreeable town of Sens on the Yonne is here described for completeness' sake. Although not lying in the Bourbonnais, Sens formed the last stage of our little tour in this direction, a direct line of railway connecting the town with Moulins. What a change we found here! Instead of unswept, malodorous streets, and sordid riverside quarters, all was clean, trim, and cared for, one wholly uncommon feature lending especial charm.
For the tutelar goddess of Sens, benignant genius presiding over the city, is a stream, or rather parent of many streams, that water the streets of their own free will, supplying thirsty beasts with copious draughts in torrid weather, and keeping up a perpetual air of rusticity and coolness.
Wherever you go you are followed by the musical ripple of these runlets, purling brooks so crystalline that you are tempted to look for forget-me-nots.
The voluntariness of this street watering constitutes its witchery. Post haste flows each tiny course; not having a moment to spare seems every current. Need we wonder at the fabled Arethusas and Sabrinas of more youthful worlds?
Of itself Sens is very engaging. We can easily understand the fact of the late Mr. Hamerton having made his first French home here. In the memoir of her husband, affixed to his autobiography, Mrs. Hamerton gives us particulars, not only of individual, but of super-personal interest. I use the last expression because the idiosyncrasy described is common to most men and women of genius or exceptional talent. The charming essayist then, the art-critic, gifted with so much insight and feeling settled down at Sens we are told, for the purpose of painting 'commission pictures.' His career was to be decided by the brush and not by the pen. The author of "The Intellectual Life," with how many other works of distinction, had, at the outset, wholly mistaken his vocation. "The first thing considered by Gilbert when he settled at Sens," writes Mrs. Hamerton, "was the choice of subjects for his commission pictures, which he intended to paint directly from nature; and he soon selected panoramic views from the top of a vine-clad hill, called Saint Bon, which commands an extensive view of the river Yonne, and of the plains about it." Unfortunately, rather we should say fortunately, anyhow, for the reading world, the 'commission pictures' were declined. The disappointed artist, out of humour with Sens, made a series of journeys in search of an ideal home, the result being that most entertaining and successful book, "Round My House," and the final devotion of its author to letters.
Sens might well seem an ideal place of abode to many. Formed from the ancient Province of Burgundy, the Department of the Yonne has the charm of Burgundian scenery, with the addition of a wide, lovely river. All travellers on the Lyons-Marseilles Railway will recall the noble appearance of the town from the railway—the Cathedral, with its one lofty tower, rising above grey roofs, no factory chimneys marring the outline, and, between bright stretches of country, the Yonne, not least enchanting of French rivers, if not the most striking or romantic, perhaps the sweetest and most soothing in the world. The favourable impression of Sens gained by this fleeting view, is more than justified on nearer acquaintance. The Cathedral, externally less imposing than those of Bourges, Rheims, or even Rodez and Beauvais, is of a piece alike without and within, no tasteless excrescence disfiguring its outer walls, little or no modern tawdriness to be seen inside, an architectural gem of great purity. For the curious in such matters, the sacristy offers many wonders, among others a large fragment of the true cross, presented to Sens by Charlemagne. Less apocryphal are the vestments of our own Archbishop Thomas, alb, girdle, stole, and the rest, all most carefully preserved and exhibited in a glass case. It will be remembered that, when the turbulent Thomas of London, afterwards known as Becket, was condemned as a traitor, he fled to France. "This is a fearful day," said one of his attendants on hearing the sentence. "The Day of Judgment will be more fearful," replied Thomas. It was not at Sens, however, that the refugee took up his abode, but in the Abbey of St. Colombe, now in ruins hard by.
On the other side of the bridge, crowning an islet, stands one of those curious churchlets, or churclings I was about to say, that possess so powerful a fascination for the archaeological mind. Particularly striking was the little Romanesque interior in the September twilight, a picturesque group of Sisters of St. Vincent de Paul, rehearsing canticles with their pupils at one end, the subdued light just enabling us to realise the harmony of proportions. This little church of St. Maurice dating from the twelfth century, partly restored in the sixteenth, must not on any account be missed. Its pretty spire crowns the Isle d'Yonne, or island of the Yonne.
Late and tired, I arrived, one September evening, at Arcis-sur-Aube, birthplace and home of the great Danton.
I had brought with me letters of introduction to friends' friends, unaware that at such a moment the sign-manual of the President of the Republic himself would hardly have secured me a night's lodging. For at this especial moment the little town, from end to end, was in the possession of the military headquarters of that year's manoeuvres.
Every private dwelling showed a notice of the officers in command sheltered under its roof. Here and there, the presence of sentinels indicated the location of generals. The hotels were crowded from basement to attic, folks who let lodgings for hire had made bargains long before, whilst the very poorest made up beds, or turned out of their own, to accommodate the rank and file. At the extreme end of the town, close to the ancestral home of the Dantons, stands the straggling old-fashioned Hotel de la Poste, a hostelry, I should suppose, not in the least changed since the days of the great conventionnel. All here was bustle and excitement. Mine host was spitting game in the kitchen, and could hardly find time to answer my application; soldiers and officers' servants, scullions and men of all-work, almost knocked each other down in the inn-yard, the landlady, generally so affable a personage in provincial France, gave me the cold shoulder. I turned out in the forlorn hope of finding a good Samaritan. Of course, to present a letter of introduction under such circumstances, was quite out of the question, my errand would have been the last hair to break the camel's back, final embarrassment of an already overdone hostess. But night was at hand; the last train to Troyes, the nearest town, had gone, no other would pass through Arcis-sur-Aube until the small hours of the morning. Unless I could procure a room, therefore, I should be in the position of a homeless vagrant. Well, not to be dismayed, I set out making inquiries right and left, to my astonishment being rebuffed rather surlily and with looks of suspicion. The fact is, during these manoeuvres, a lady arriving at head-quarters alone is apt to be looked upon with no favourable eye. Especially do people wonder what on earth can bring a foreigner to an out of the way country place at such a time—she must surely be a spy, pickpocket or something worse!
After having vainly made inquiries to no purpose along the principal street, I turned into a grocer's shop in a smaller thoroughfare; two young assistants were chatting without anything to do, and they looked so good-natured that I entered and begged them to help me.
Very likely an English hobbledehoy similarly appealed to would have blushed, giggled, and got rid of the stranger as quickly as possible; French youths of all ranks have rather more of the man of the world in them. The elder of the lads became at once interested in my case, and manifested a keen desire to be serviceable. Hailing a little girl from without, he bade her conduct me to a certain Mademoiselle D—— who let rooms and might have one vacant. The little maid, fetching a companion to accompany us—here also was a French trait; whatever is done, must be done sociably—took me to the address given; the demoiselle in question was, however, not at home, but the concierge said that, another demoiselle living near would probably be able to accommodate me, which she did. Before I proceed with my narrative, however, I must mention the ill fortune that befell my useful little cicerone.
On taking leave I had given her half a franc, a modest recompense enough as I thought. The following story would seem to show that the good people of Arcis have not yet become imbued with modern ideas about money, also that they have a high notion of the value of truth. To my dismay I learnt next morning that the poor little girl had been soundly slapped, her mother refusing to believe that she had come honestly by so much money; as my hostess observed, the good woman might at least have waited for corroboration of the child's statement. A box of chocolate, transmitted by a third hand, I have no doubt acted as a consolation.
Dear kind mademoiselle Jenny M—— How warmly she welcomed me to her homely hearth! My little purple rosette, insignia of an officer of Public Instruction of France, proved a bond of union. This excellent woman was the daughter of a schoolmaster who had himself worn the academic ribbon, a French schoolmaster's crowning ambition. He had left his daughter, in comfortable circumstances, that is to say, she enjoyed an annuity of L40 a year, the possession of a large, roomy house, part of which she let, and half an acre of garden full as it could be of flowers, fruit and vegetables. We at once became excellent friends.
"Now," she said, "I am very sorry that my best bedroom is given up to soldiers, two poor young fellows I took in the other night out of compassion. You can, however, have the little back room looking on to the garden, it is rather in disorder, but you will find the bed comfortable. I cannot offer to do much for you in the way of waiting, having a lame foot, but a woman brings me milk early in the morning and she shall put a cupful outside your door; bread and butter you will find in the little kitchen next to your room."
I assured her that such an arrangement would suit me very well, as I had my own spirit lamp and could make tea for myself; then we went downstairs. The great difficulty that night was to get anything to eat. The soldiers had eaten every body out of house and home, she assured me there was not such a thing as a chop or an egg to be had in the town for love or money. Fortunately, I had the remains of a cold chicken in my lunch basket, and this did duty for supper, my hostess pressing upon me some excellent Bordeaux.
As we chatted, she mentioned the fact that two or three friends, much in the same situation as herself, occupied the little houses running alongside her garden.
"We are all old maids," she informed me.
"Old maids," quoth I, "how is that? I thought there were no single women out of convents in France."
"The thing," she said, "has come about in this way—we have all enough to live upon, and so many women worsen their condition by marriage, instead of bettering it, that we made up our minds to live comfortably on what we have got, and not trouble our heads about the men. We live very happily together, and are all socialists, radicals, libres penseuses and the rest. We read a great deal, and, as you will see to-morrow, my father left me a good library."
As we sat at table in the somewhat untidy kitchen, my fellow guests, the conscripts, came in, they were pleasant, civil young fellows belonging to different classes of life. One was a middle-class civilian from an industrial city of the north, the other a homely peasant, son of the soil.
These conscripts, however poorly fed in barracks, fare like aldermen during these manoeuvres, everybody giving them to eat and drink of their best. They had just dined plentifully, but for all that, managed to get down a bumper of wine immediately offered by Mademoiselle Jenny; a hunk of Dijon gingerbread they did evidently find some difficulty in getting through. We toasted each other in friendliest fashion, and the civilian, out of compliment to myself, drank to the health of the English army.
Next morning I fared no less sumptuously than a soldier during the manoeuvres. A savoury steam had announced game for our mid-day meal.
"Now," said my hostess, as she dished up and began to carve a fat partridge cooked to a turn—"this bird that came so apropos, is a present from a great-nephew of Danton. He is the juge de paix here and a good neighbour of mine. We will pay him a visit this afternoon."
Of this gentleman, of Danton's home and family, I shall say something later on. We made a round of visits that day, but the juge de paix, who seemed to share the tastes of his great ancestor, was in the country in search of more partridges. Other friends and acquaintances we found at home; among these was a retired confectioner, who had once kept a shop in Regent Street, and had told Mademoiselle Jenny that she would be delighted to talk English with me.
Warmly welcomed I was by the portly, prosperous looking pastry-cook, who was reading a newspaper and smoking a cigarette in a well-furnished, comfortable parlour. But alas! thirty years had elapsed since his departure from England, and during the interval he had never once interchanged a word with any of my country-people. To his intense mortification, he had completely lost hold of the English tongue! Another acquaintance, an elderly woman, who seemed to be living on small independent means, had a curious house pet. This, once a pretty little frisking lamb, had now reached the proportions of a big fat sheep. So docile and affectionate, however, was the animal, and so attached had the good soul become to it, that a pet it seemed likely to remain to the end of its days; the creature followed its mistress about like a dog.
The little town of Arcis-sur-Aube, like many another, is now deserted by all who can get to livelier and more bustling centres. Tanneries, vest, stocking and glove weaving and stitching, are the only resources of the place.
During my stay, I made the acquaintance of a charming family engaged in the latter trade. Stopping one day in front of a weaver's open door to watch him at work, I was cordially invited to enter. The head of the house, one of those quiet, intelligent, dignified artisans so typical of his class in France, was weaving vest sleeves at a hand loom, just as I had seen, at St. Etienne, ribbon weavers pursuing their avocations at home. As we chatted about his handicraft and its modest emoluments, his little son came in from school, a bright lad who, to his father's delight, had lately gained prizes. It is curious that only one part of a vest, stocking or glove is done by a single hand; some goods I found came to this house to be finished and others were sent away to be made ready for sale elsewhere. By-and-by, a pretty, refined girl, the daughter of the house, came in and asked me if I would like to see what she was doing.
Forthwith she took me to a neat, cheerful little room upstairs overlooking a garden.
On a table by the open window was a hand-sewing machine, and her occupation was the ornamental stitching of silk and cotton gloves by machinery. The pay seemed excessively low I thought, I believe something like twopence per dozen pair, but the young machinist seemed perfectly contented and happy.
"It is pleasant," she said, "to be able to earn something at home and to live with papa and mamma and my little brother."
Before leaving, with the prettiest grace in the world, she begged my acceptance of a dainty pair of lavender silk gloves knitted by her own hands.
Some day I hope to revisit Arcis-sur-Aube, and meantime I hold occasional intercourse by post with my friends in Danton's town.
But by far the most interesting acquaintance at this most historic little town was the great-nephew of Danton. Middle-aged, unpretentious of aspect, yet with that unmistakable look partly of dignified self-possession, partly of authority, seldom absent from the French official, I looked in vain for any likeness to the portraits of his great kinsman. Yet perhaps in the stalwart figure, manly proportions and bronzed complexion, might be traced some suggestion of the athlete, the strong swimmer, the bold sportsman, whose mighty voice once made Europe tremble. The brother of this gentleman also lived at Arcis-sur-Aube, but was absent during my visit. The juge de paix and his family were on friendliest terms with my hostess, and he would often drop in for a chat.
From him and other residents I gathered some interesting particulars about the Danton family. The great tribune left two little sons, George and Antoine, who grew up and resided in their ancestral home, hiding themselves from the world. Their young step-mother it was whose memory, when on the way to the guillotine, evoked from Danton the only betrayal of personal emotion throughout his stormy career: "Must I leave thee for ever, my beloved," then, quickly recovering himself, cried "Danton, no weakness!"
Madame Danton married again and is lost sight of. One of Danton's sisters entered a convent, as it was supposed hoping to expiate by a life given up to prayer the crimes, as she deemed them, of her brother. Meantime, appalled by the shadow of their father's memory, George and Antoine decided to remain celibate, a pair marked out for solitude and obloquy.
"Let the name of Danton perish from the recollection of man," they said.
The elder, however, afterwards acknowledged and, I believe, legitimised a daughter according to the merciful French law. Mademoiselle Danton became Madame Menuel, and, strange as it may seem, at the time of my visit, this direct descendant of Danton was still living. President Carnot had given her a small pension in the form of a bureau de tabac at Troyes, where she died in 1896, leaving a son, who some years ago was divorced from his wife, emigrated to Buenos Ayres, and has never been heard of since. It is supposed that he is dead. The two great-nephews have each a son and a daughter living.
The juge de paix and his brother are now among the most respected citizens of Arcis, and have lived to witness the rehabilitation of their great ancestor. Neither of the pair inhabit the house in which Danton was born, and to which he ever returned with joy and satisfaction.
A sight of Danton's house is sufficient to disprove the calumnies of that noble woman, but inveterate hater, Madame Roland.
From her memoirs we might gather that Danton was a poverty-stricken, pettifogging lawyer of the basest class. That Danton's family belong to the well-to-do upper middle ranks, we see from the object lesson before us. At the time of my visit, this large, roomy, well-built house, with coach-house, stables and half-a-dozen acres of garden, orchard and wood, was to let for 700 francs a year. But so low a rent now-a-days is no indication of its value a hundred years ago.
The owner of the house most kindly showed me over every part.
It is two-storeyed, plainly but solidly constructed, and evidently arranged, according to French fashion, for a combined tenancy. Two or three families could here well be accommodated under the same roof, each having separate establishments. I found myself in a covered carriageway, cool dark corridors leading to outhouses and stables, a wide staircase with handsome oak balustrade to upstair kitchen and bed-chambers, on either side of the ground floor were spacious salon and dining room, fronting town and river, water-mills and quays. In the vast kitchen was an enormous chopping block, suggestive of large family joints.
My kind cicerone allowed me to linger in Danton's bed-chamber. I now looked out from the window at which the fallen leader was often seen by his townsfolk during the last days of his stormy career. In his night-cap the colossal figure might be descried gazing out into the night, as if peering into futurity, trying to read the future. Did he perhaps from time to time waver in his decision to abide his doom? We know that again and again his friends urged him to seek safety in flight.
"Does a man carry his country on the sole of his shoe?" he retorted fiercely, but it may well be that he here envied weaker men. Danton's character was thoroughly French. His ambition was as he said to retire to Arcis-sur-Aube and there plant cabbages. A devoted son, husband and father, his affections were also centred upon others not of his blood and name. He tenderly loved his old nurse, and left her a small pension. Within the last thirty years, thanks to M. Aulard and his collaborators, the history of the Revolution has been written anew, or rather for the first time. The gigantic figure of Danton stands forth to-day in its true light, as the saviour of France from the fate of Poland, and as a founder of the democratic idea. He succumbed less because he was a rival of Robespierre than because he was a friend of humanity.
"I would rather be guillotined than guillotine," he repeated, and it was mainly his effort to stay the Terror that made him its victim.
The study adjoining contained that suggestive library of English, Spanish, Italian, and ancient classics of which his biographers have given us a catalogue, but which are now, alas! dispersed for ever.
The house stands conspicuous, rearing a proud front to the world, if world could be used appropriately of so quiet, humdrum a little place. A few hundred yards off we reach the Church, Hotel de Ville and open square. In 1886, a monument to Danton was inaugurated here with much ceremony. A bronze statue represents the great tribune in the fiery attitude of an orator, pronouncing his immortal phrase:—
"De l'audace, encore de l'audace, toujours de l'audace!"
Arcis-sur-Aube is a little town of three thousand souls, within an hour's railway journey from Troyes. The river Aube (Alba), so called from its silveriness flows by Danton's house. In his time and up to the opening of the railways the place was a port of some importance. Boats and barges carried goods to Troyes, Bar-sur-Aube and other towns.
Of late years Arcis has been partially surrounded with pleasant shady walks greatly appreciated by the townsfolk. Regretfully I quitted my circle of acquaintances here, little dreaming under what interesting circumstances I should next meet Danton's great-nephew.
The grandest of all the grand cathedrals in France has been so fully described elsewhere, that I will not attempt to do justice to the subject myself. During one of my numerous visits to Rheims, however, it was my good fortune to enjoy a very rare experience. On the occasion of President Faure's funeral, the great bourdon or bell, formerly only tolled for the death of monarchs, was now heard for the second time during the Third Republic. Standing under the shadow of that vast minster the sound seemed to come from east and west, from above and below, dwarfing the hum of the city to nothingness, as if echoing from the remotest corners of France. It was no heroic figure now knelled by the deepest-voiced bell in the country, but in the person of the Havre tanner raised to the dignity of a ruler, was embodied a magnificent idea, the sovereignty of the people and the overthrow of privilege. Never as long as I live shall I forget the boom of that great bell, and long the solemn sound lingered on my ears.
A few days later the interior of the vast Cathedral echoed with sound almost as overwhelming in its force and solemnity. A grand mass was given in honour of the dead President.
In front of the high altar stood a lofty catafalque, the rich purple drapery blazing with gold. The nave was filled with dazzling uniforms and embroidered vestments. In especially reserved seats sat the officers of the Legion of Honour, among these in civilian dress figuring the honoured citizen of Rheims who has ever retained English nationality, Mr. Jonathan Holden.
What with beating drums, clashing cymbals, blaring trumpets and pealing organ, the tremendous vault seemed hardly capacious enough for the deafening combination of sound. As a relief came the funeral march of Chopin, the more subdued strains seeming almost inaudible after the tumult of the moment before. Never surely had plebeian requiem so imperial!
The rich, artistic and archaeological treasures of Rheims are well known. I will now describe one or two sights which do not come in the way of the tourist.
One of these is the so-called "Maison de Retraite" or associated home for people of small means. The handsome building, with its large grounds, accommodating three hundred tenants, is neither a hotel nor a boarding establishment, least of all an almshouse.
Under municipal patronage and support the "Maison de Retraite" offers rooms, board, attendance, laundress and even a small plot of garden for the annual sum of L16 to L24 per inmate, the second sum procuring larger rooms and more liberal fare. Personal independence is absolutely unhampered except by the fact that the lodge gate is closed at 10 p.m. As most of the tenants of the home are elderly folks, such a rule is no hardship. One great advantage of the system is the protection thus afforded to single women and old people, and the immunity from household cares. Meals are taken in common, but otherwise intercourse is voluntary. The French temperament is so sociable, however, and chat is such a necessity of existence, that we saw many groups on garden benches, and also in the recreation and reading rooms. When the number of small rentiers is considered, i.e., men and women of the middle-class living upon a minimum income, we can understand the usefulness of this home. I learned that the establishment is self-supporting, the initiatory expense having been borne by the town and philanthropists.
We strolled about with one of the managing staff finding the inmates very sociable; one elderly gentleman invited us to sit down in his bit of garden, very proud, as he might well be, of all the flowers he had contrived to crowd into so small a space. We were also welcomed into some of the neat interiors, these varying in size according to the scale of payment. The class profiting by this associated home was evidently that of the small bourgeoisie.
Children there seemed to be none, one and all of the tenants being elderly widows, widowers, bachelors or spinsters. There were, however, a few married couples, who, if they preferred it, could cook their own meals at home. For single, middle-class women here was a refuge answering to the conventual boarding house of the upper classes.
Unmarried women in France are not nearly so numerous as in England, and I must say they may well envy their English and American sisters in spinsterhood. An unmarried French lady belonging to genteel society cannot cross the street unaccompanied till she has passed her fortieth year, nor till then may she open the pages of Victor Hugo or read a newspaper. Even in this "Maison de Retraite" special provision was made for the privacy of single ladies; whether they liked it or not they were expected to eat in a separate dining room, and meet for social purposes in a separate salon. As there is no limit to the emotional period and the age of sentiment, perhaps these safeguards of propriety are not wholly superfluous.
Of course the economy of such an arrangement is very great. Think of a respectable fairly-educated young woman getting what good old John Bunyan calls "harbour and good company," in other words, all the other necessaries of life, with society into the bargain, for L16 a year! The attendance is of course somewhat rough and ready. We saw a stalwart, rough-haired, rather masculine-looking female setting one of the dinner-tables with a clatter that would drive the fastidious to distraction. But the good soul had evidently her heart in her work, and I dare aver that single-handed she got through as much as three English housemaids with ourselves. Would such a scheme answer in England? I doubt it. The Anglo-Saxon character is the reverse of sociable, and class distinctions are so in-rooted in the English nature that it would be very difficult to get ten English women together who considered themselves belonging to precisely the same class.
Furthermore, are there with us many widows or spinsters of the same class enjoying even such small independent means as the sums above mentioned? In France, teachers, tradeswomen, female clerks and others, by dint of rigid economy, usually insure for themselves a small income before reaching old age. Fortunately habits of thrift are increasing in England, and our women workers have a larger field and earn higher wages. I had also the privilege of seeing the great wool-combing factory of our countryman Mr. Jonathan Holden, for upwards of forty years a citizen of Rheims. This town has been for centuries one of the foremost seats of industry in France. Mr. Holden's chimneys are kept going night and day, Sundays excepted, with alternating shifts of workmen. All the hands employed are of French nationality and—a fact speaking volumes—no strike has ever disturbed the amicable relations of English employer and French employed. The great drawback to an inspection of these workshops is the din of the machinery and the odour of the skins. But there is something that takes hold of the imagination in the perfection to which machinery has been carried. As we gaze upon these huge engines, only occasionally touched by a woman's hand, we are reminded of man, the pigmy guiding an elephant. We seem conscious, moreover, of what almost approaches human intelligence, so much of the work achieved appearing voluntary rather than automatic. The skins reach Rheims direct from Australia and are here dressed, cleaned and prepared for working up into cloth. If machinery is brought almost to the perfection of manual dexterousness, human beings attain the precision of machinery.
I saw a neatly dressed girl at work whose sole occupation it was to tie up the wool, now white as snow and soft as silk, into small parcels. The wool already weighed came down by a little trough, and as swiftly and methodically as wheels set in motion, the girl's fingers folded the paper and tied the string. I should not like to guess how many of these parcels she turned off in half a minute.
Rheims possesses a handsome theatre, the acquaintance of which I was enabled to make under exceptional circumstances. At the risk of appearing slightly egotistical, I will here describe an incident which has other than personal interest. My visit to Damon's country, the particulars of which were given in a former chapter, had an especial object, viz., the setting of a novel of my own having the great conventionnel for its hero. The story was dramatised by two French collaborators, one of whom was at that time stage manager of the Grand Theatre, Rheims. What, then, was my delight to see one morning placarded throughout the town the announcement of the Anglo-French play? A few days before the first representation I had witnessed a rehearsal, and as I was guided through the dusky labyrinths of the theatre I could realise the excessive, the appalling, combustibility of such buildings. It is difficult, moreover, for those who have never penetrated into such recesses—whose only acquaintance is with the representation on the stage—to imagine how gloomy and sepulchral "behind the scenes" may appear. However, by-and-by it was all cheerful enough, and the rehearsal, I must say, although of a tragedy, abounded in touches of humour. My friend and myself were accommodated with chairs just in front of the stage near the prompter, a very friendly personage, who was evidently interested in the fact of my presence. The actors and actresses dropped in one by one and we exchanged a cordial handshake. There was nothing theatrical about the dress or manners of these ladies, whose ages ranged from extreme youth to middle age. They all looked pleasant, lady-like, ordinary women, who might have quitted their housekeeping or any other occupation of a domestic nature. The men, too, impressed me agreeably as they greeted myself and their colleagues. Very amusing was the commencement of proceedings.
"Come, my children, put yourselves into position," said the stage manager, making corrections or suggestions as he went on; now somebody spoke too loud, and now somebody was too inarticulate, now an arm was held too forward, and now a leg dragged too much. Excessively diverting, also, the dummy show. In one scene of the play, a village schoolmaster is holding a class of little boys and girls. To-day, a row of chairs did duty for the scholars and were duly harangued, catechised, and even admonished with a cane. In another scene, a peasant woman appears with her donkey, to whom she confides a long tirade of troubles, the donkey for the moment being like the showman's hero in the famous story, "round the corner." A third and still more amusing piece of dumb show occurred later, when an ex-abbess acting as housekeeper to the village cure, let fall a basket of potatoes which were supposed to roll about the stage. All went well and the prompter, to whom I appealed for an opinion, assured me that I need be under no uneasiness, for the piece would go off like a house on fire.
In spite of that favourable prognostic an author's first night is always a nervous affair, especially when that author is a foreigner, and her piece a translation from the original.
However, everything went merry as a marriage bell, my kind friends filled several boxes, and perhaps one of the most interesting incidents of the evening was the fact that just underneath sat Danton's great-nephew with his clerk, who had come from Arcis-sur-Aube expressly for the occasion. Between the acts I went down and chatted with these two gentlemen, also with a French friend who had travelled from Dijon—a six hours' railway journey—in order to witness the piece. To the best of my knowledge now for the first time Danton figured on the French stage.
It must be confessed that the theatre on this especial night was not a crowded house. In the first place, three large soirees, which had been postponed on account of the President's funeral, coincided with the representation. In the second place, as a rule, the wealthier and more fashionable classes do not patronise provincial theatres, especially when residing within easy reach of Paris. However, the pit and gallery were packed, and loud was the applause with which the appearance of Danton in a blue tail coat, top boots and sash, and his vehement utterances were greeted.
It had never crossed my mind that under such circumstances an author would be called for; when, indeed, at the close of the piece, cries of "Auteur! auteur!" were heard throughout the theatre, my friends begged me to show myself. Which, proudly enough, I did, first saluting the sovereign people in the gallery, then bowing less beamingly to the scantier audience in the boxes, finally acknowledging the acclamations from the pit. If "Danton a Arcis" brought its author neither fame nor fortune, it certainly repaid her in another and most agreeable fashion. Two or three days later, a second representation of the piece at popular prices was given, and upon that occasion the house was full to overflowing.
The Grand Theatre, Rheims, is a very handsome building, and like most other provincial houses maintains a company of its own, although from time to time it is visited by the best Paris troupes.
Yet another uncommon recollection of Rheims must here be recorded. In September of last year, I witnessed such a spectacle as my military friends assured me had never before been afforded to the marvel-loving; in other words, the sight of a hundred and sixty thousand men—a host perhaps more numerous than any ever commanded by Napoleon—performing evolutions within range of vision.
By half-past five in the morning I was off from Paris with my host and hostess in their motor car for the Northern railway station. The day of the great review broke dull and grey, and deserted indeed looked the usually gay and lively Paris streets. We reached the station at five minutes to six, i.e., five minutes before the starting of our train, and at once realised the neatness with which the day's programme had been arranged, both by the railway companies and the Government. The tens of thousands of sightseers had been despatched to Rheims by relays of trains during the night, and the station was now kept clear for the numerous specials conveying members of the Senate, the Chamber, and the Press. Here, therefore, was no crowding whatever, only a quiet stream of deputies, wearing their tricolour badges accompanied by their ladies, each deputy having the privilege of taking two.
Precisely on the stroke of six, our long and well-filled train consisting of first-class carriages only steamed out of the station, taking the northern route and only making a short halt at Soissons. No sooner had we joined the Compiegne line than we realised the tremendous precautions necessary in the case of visitors so august; double rows of soldiers were placed at short intervals on either side of the railway and detachments of mounted troops stationed at a distance guarded the route. The arrangements for our own comfort were perfect. Our train set us down, not at Rheims, but at Betheny itself the scene of the review, a temporary station having been there erected. We were, therefore within a hundred yards or so of our tribune, or raised stage, and of the luncheon tents, roads having been laid down to each by the Genie or engineering body. Numbered indications conspicuously placed quite prevented any confusion whatever, and, indeed, it was literally impossible for anyone to miss his way. The only eventuality that could have spoiled everything, wet weather, fortunately held off until the show was over. The review itself was a magnificent spectacle, surely not without irony when we consider that this great military display, one of the greatest on record, was got up in honour of the first Sovereign in the world who had dared to propose a general disarmament! Another line of thought was awakened by the fact of our isolation. The specially invited guests of the French Government upon this occasion numbered three thousand persons, and it seemed that for the Czar, his train, and these, the great show was got up. The thousands of outsiders, sightseers, and excursionists, brought to Rheims by cheap trains from all parts of France, were nowhere; in other words, invisible.
Whether or no such spectators got anything like a view of the evolutions I do not know. I should be inclined to think that from the distance at which they were kept the moving masses were mere blurs and nothing more. From our own tribune, adjoining that of the Presidential party, we commanded a view of the entire forces covering the vast plain, surrounded by rising ground.
Amazing it was to see the dark immovable lines slowly break up, and as if set in motion by machinery, deploy according to orders. The vast plain before us was a veritable sea of men, an army, one would think, sufficient for the military needs of all Europe.
One striking feature of these superb regiments, cavalry as well as infantry, was the excellence of the bands. Never before had I realised the inspiriting thing that martial music might be. Another interesting point was that afforded by the cyclists, several regiments having these newly formed companies. Whenever a flag was borne past, whether by foot or mounted soldier, the cheering was tremendous, but it was reserved for a regiment of Lorrainers to receive a veritable ovation. Still so fondly yearns the heart of France after her lost and mutilated provinces! On the whole, and speaking as a naive amateur, I should say that no country in the world could show a grander military spectacle. Enthusiasm reigned amongst all beholders, but there was no display of political bias or any discordant note. Cries of "Vive la France!" were as frequent as those of "Vive l'armee!"
Not a policeman was to be seen anywhere, the deputies keeping order for themselves. And not always without an effort! People would rise from their seats, even stand on benches, despite the thundered out "Remain seated!" on all sides. On the whole, and with this exception, nothing could surpass the general good humour. And when the splendid cortege filed by at the close, delight and satisfaction beamed on every face. M. Loubet was so dignified, folks said, Madame Loubet was so well dressed, the deportment of M. Waldeck Rousseau was perfect, M. Deschanel handsomer than ever, and so on, every member of the Czar's, or rather the President's, entourage winning approval. General Andre and M. Delcasse were very warmly received. The slim, pale, fastidious looking young man in flat, white cap, green tunic, and high boots, seated beside the portly, genial figure wearing the broad Presidential ribbon, set me thinking. How at the bottom of his heart does the Autocrat of All The Russias view these representatives of the great French Republic! How does he really feel towards France, the first nation of the western world to set the example of officially recognised self-government, the initiator of a system as opposed to Russian despotism as is white to black? Whatever may be the secret of this strange Franco-Russian alliance, it is apparently in the interest of peace, and, as such, should be warmly welcomed by all advocates of progress.
The luncheon was superabundant, consisting of wines, cold meat, and bread in plenty. The task of finding refreshment for three thousand people had been satisfactorily solved. The only thing wanting was water. It seems that upon such an occasion no one was expected to drink anything short of Bordeaux, Burgundy, or pale ale.
All the special trains were crowded for the return journey, made by way of Meaux, but everyone made way for everyone, and we reached Paris at eight o'clock, almost as fresh and quite as good-humoured as we had quitted it at dawn. If this great review was interesting from one point more than another, it was from the manner in which it displayed the wonderful organising faculty of the French mind. The most trifling details no more than the largest combinations can disconcert this pre-eminently national aptitude.
SOULAINES AND BAR-SUR-AUBE.
The first of these places mentioned is a Champenois village twelve miles from a railway station. From the windows of my friends' chateau I look upon a magnificent deer park, where during the oft-time torrid heat of summer delicious shade is to be found.
Far away vast forests bound the horizon, to the north a hot open road leading to Brienne-le-Chateau, where Napoleon studied as a military cadet; eastward, lies varied scenery between Soulaines and Bar-sur-Aube, there woodland ending and the vine country beginning.
On one especial visit during September, not even these acres of closely-serried forest could induce more than a suggestion of shadow and coolness. Although screened from view the sun was there. Throughout a vast region—half a province of woodland—folks breathed the hot air of the Soudan. The tropic temperature admitted of no exercise during the day, but after four o'clock tea we broke up into parties—drove, rode, strolled, called upon homelier neighbours, visited quaint old churches hidden in the trees or forest nooks, the solitude only broken by pattering of deer and rabbits, or nut-cracking squirrel aloft. Here and there we would come upon huts of charcoal-burner and wood-cutter, gamekeepers and foresters, too, had their scattered lodges; such signs of human habitation being few and far between.
We are here in the remnant of the great Celtic forest of Der. The straggling village of Soulaines is one long street, a little stream running behind the picturesque, timbered houses, many of these have outer wooden staircases leading to grange or storehouse. Church and presbytery, convent and Mairie were conspicuous.
In the opposite direction, another church rose above the horizon, the centre of what in France is called not a village but a hamlet. Bare as a barn seen from far and near showed this little church, and we often walked thither for the sake of its picturesque surroundings. The portal of the quaint old building is a mass of ancient sculpture, close round it being grouped a few mud-built, timbered, one-storeyed dwellings all of a pattern.
Even in France are to be found day labourers, only the very poorest, however, being without a cottage, plot of ground, a cow and of poultry their own. Many of their interiors are far neater and cleaner than those of the farm-houses, their occupants not being so tied to the soil from morning to night, not, in fact, incited to Herculean labours by the spur of larger possession. We visited one of the poorest villages hereabouts, of not quite a hundred souls, but of course, provided with church, school and Mairie. Many a group of potato diggers we saw in the exquisite twilight, suggestive of Millet, many a landscape recalling other masters. This handful of woodlanders—for the village is surrounded by forests—is perhaps as poor as any rural population to be found throughout France. Yet here surprises await us. Some of the better off hire a little land, keep cows, rear poultry, most likely in time to become owners of a plot. They are paid for harvest work in kind, several we talked to having earned enough corn for the winter's consumption—as they put it—our winter's bread. They are a fine, sunburnt, well-formed race and seem cheerful enough. In one of the poorest houses, a huge pipkin on the fire emitted savoury steam, and rows of small cheeses garnished the shelves. Good oak bedsteads, linen presses and old-fashioned clocks were general. Every mantel-piece had its framed photograph and ornamental crockery. New milk was always freely offered us.
Within the precincts of this hamlet we find ourselves in a bluish-green land of mingled wood and water; above the reedy marsh, haunt of wild fowl, willows grew thick; here and there the water flowed freely, its surface broken by the plash of carp and trout. At this season all hands hereabouts were busy with threshing out the newly garnered corn and getting in potatoes. The crops are very varied, wheat, barley, lucerne, beetroot, buckwheat, colza, potatoes; we see a little of everything. Artificial manures are not much used, nor agricultural machinery to a great extent, except by large farmers, but the land is clean and in a high state of cultivation. Peasant property is the rule; labouring for hire, the condition of non-possession, very rare. And whether the times are good or evil, land dirt cheap or dear, the year's savings go to the purchase of a field or two and, as a necessary consequence, to the consolidation of the Republic and the maintenance of Parliamentary institutions.
I will now say something of our neighbours. One of these was the parish priest, who had the care of between six and seven hundred souls. The fact may be new to some readers that a village cure, even in these days, receives on an average little more than Goldsmith's country parson, "counted rich on forty pounds a year." This cure's stipend, including perquisites amounted to just sixty pounds yearly, in addition to which he had a good house, large garden and paddock. But compare such a position with that of one of our own rectors and vicars!
The Protestant clergy in France are better paid than those belonging to the orthodox faith. Being heads of families, they are supposed, and justly, to need more. Let it not be imagined, however, that the priest receives less under the Republic than under the Empire. But the cost of living has increased.
Of course there are black sheep in the Romish fold as elsewhere; perhaps even the simplicity, learning and devotion to duty of the individual I here write of, are rare. Yet one cannot help feeling how much more money the Government would have at command with which to remunerate good workers in pacific fields if disarmament were practicable. This excellent priest, like other men of education and taste, would have relished a little travel as much as do our own vicars and curates their annual outing to Norway or Switzerland. What remains for recreation and charity after defraying household expenses and cost of a housekeeper out of sixty pounds a year?
Next, let me say a word about the juge de paix in France, as I presume most readers are aware, a modest functionary, yet better paid than that of a priest. The average stipend of a justice of the peace is about a hundred pounds a year, with lodging, but although his duties often take him far afield he is not provided with a vehicle, and must either cycle or defray the cost of carriage hire. I know many of these rural magistrates, and have ever found them men of education and intelligence. I, now, for the first time, found one well read in English literature, not only able to discuss Shakespeare and Walter Scott, but the latest English novel appearing in translation as a feuilleton. It is well that these small officials should have such resources. Tied down as they are to remote country spots, their existence is often monotonous enough, especially during the winter months.
It seems to be a canon of French faith that you cannot have too much of a good thing, anyhow in the matter of wedding festivities. Parisian society is beginning to adopt English saving of time and money, fashionable marriages there now being followed by a brief lunch and reception. Country-folks stick to tradition, preferring to make the most of an event which as a rule happens only once during a lifetime. Gratifying as was the experience to an English guest, especially that guest being a devoted admirer of France, I must honestly confess that my share in such a celebration constituted probably the hardest day's work I ever performed. Here I will explain that the bride's father was head forester of my host and hostess, the great folks of the place, and adored by their humbler neighbours. Chateau and cottage were thus closely, nay affectionately, interested in the important event I am about to describe, and this aspect of it is fully as noteworthy as the truly Gallic character of the long drawn out fete itself.
By nine a.m. horses and carriages of the chateau, adorned with wedding favours, were flying madly about in all directions conveying the wedding party to and from the Mairie for the civil ceremony. An hour later we were ourselves off to the village church, the house party including three English guests. The enormously long religious ceremony over, a procession was formed headed by musicians, bride and bridegroom leading the way, fifty and odd couples following and the round of the village was made. At the door of the festive house we formed a circle, the newly-wedded pair embracing everyone and receiving congratulations; this is a somewhat lachrymose ceremony. The marriage was in every way satisfactory, but the nice-looking young bride, a general favourite, was quitting for ever her childhood's home. After some little delay we all took our places in two banqueting rooms, the tables being arranged horse-shoe wise. Facing bride and bridegroom sat my host, the second room being presided over by the bride's father, of whom I shall have something to say later. Here I give the bill of fare, merely adding that the festive board was neatly, even elegantly, spread, and that every dish was excellent:—
Hors d'oeuvre Salade de saison Radis, beurre frais, Langue fumee Fruits Bouchees a la Reine Brioche. Nougat Daim, sauce chassuer Desserts varies Galantine truffee Vins Salmis de canards Pineau, Bordeaux, Champagne Choux-fleurs Cafe, Liqueurs. Dinde truffee.
Looking down the lines of well-dressed people, all with the exception of ourselves belonging to the same rank as the bride, I could but be struck with the good looks, gentle bearing, and general appearance of everyone. As to the head forester, he was one of Nature's gentlemen, and might easily have passed for a general or senator. At the table sat several young girls of the village, each having a cavalier, all these dressed very neatly and comporting themselves like well-bred young ladies without presumption or awkwardness. During the inevitable pauses between dish and dish, one after another of these pretty girls stood up and gratified the company with a song, the performance costing perhaps an effort, but being got through simply and naturally. In the midst of the banquet, which lasted over three hours, two professionals came to sing and recite. From the breakfast table, after toasts,—the afternoon being now well advanced—we again formed a procession to the Mairie, in front of which al fresco dancing commenced. Add that this out-of-door ball lasted till a second dinner, the dinner being followed by a second ball lasting far into the small hours. Nor did the celebration end here. The following day was equally devoted to visits, feasts, toasts, and dancing. What a national heritage is this capacity for fellowship, gaiety, and harmless mirth!
Bar-sur-Aube lies twelve miles off and a beautiful drive it is thither from Soulaines. We gradually leave forest, pasture and arable land, finding ourselves amid vineyards. At the little village of Ville-sur-Terre, we one day halted at a farm-house for a chat, the housewife most kindly presenting me with two highly decorative plates.
As we approach Bar-sur-Aube we come upon a wide and beautiful prospect, wooded hills dominating the plain.
This little town is very prettily situated, and like every other in France possesses some old churches. Perhaps its most famous child is Bombonnel, the great panther-slayer, born close by, who died at Dijon and whose souvenirs bequeathed to me as a legacy I have given elsewhere. The son of a working glazier, he made a little fortune as hawker of stockings in the streets of New Orleans, returned to France, cleared the Algerian Tell of panthers, for a time enjoyed ease with dignity in Burgundy; on the outbreak of the Franco-German War in 1870, as leader of a thousand francs-tireurs, gave the Germans more trouble than any commander of an army corps, twice had a price of L1,000 set upon his head, was glorified by Victor Hugo, received the decoration of the Legion of Honour, and as a reward for his patriotic services several hundred acres of land in Algeria. A gigantic statue of Sant Hubert, the patron of hunters, now commemorates the great little man, for he was short of statue, in the cemetery of Dijon.
Bar-sur-Aube is connected with another notoriety, the infamous Madame de la Motte, the arch-adventuress, who, a descendant herself of Valois kings, proved the undoing of Marie Antoinette. As was truly said by a great contemporary:—"The affair of the Diamond Necklace," wrote Mirabeau, "has been the forerunner of the Revolution."
This Jeanne de Valois, rescued from the gutter by a benovolent lady of title and a charitable priest, presents a psychological study rare even in the annals of crime. Never, perhaps, were daring, unscrupulousness, and the faculty of combination linked with so complete a disregard to consequences. The moving spring of her actions, often so complicated and foolhardy, was love of money and display. It seemed as if in her person, was accumulated the lavishness of French Royal mistresses from Diane de Poitiers down to Madame Dubarry. There was a good deal of the Becky Sharp about her too, although there is nothing in her history to show that, like Thackeray's heroine, "she had no objection to pay people if she had the money." If, indeed, anything in the shape of ethics guided the most astoundingly ingenious swindler we know of, it was some such principle as this: she ought to have been at Versailles, there being received as a recognised Princess of the Royal House; since, through no fault whatever of her own, she was not, she had a perfect right to avenge herself upon royalty and society in general.
How she wormed herself into the confidence of the Cardinal de Rohan, a man of the world and of education, would seem wholly unaccountable but for one fact. The Prince Primate had faith in Cagliostro and his nostrums, and when an individual has recourse to astrologers and fortune-tellers, we are quite in a position to gauge his mental condition. Like Mdlle. Couesdon of contemporary fame, Cagliostro held intercourse with the angel Gabriel, but his occult powers and privileges far exceeded those of the Parisian lady-seer. He was actually in the habit of dining with Henri IV., and two days before the Cardinal's arrest made his client believe that he had just accepted such an invitation!
It had been Rohan's ambition to obtain the favour of the Queen and a foremost position at court, hence the readiness with which he fell into the trap. For "the Valois orphan," now Comtesse de la Motte, not only possessed great personal attractions, but an extraordinary gift of persuasiveness. Without much apparent trouble she made the Cardinal believe that she was in the Queen's favour, and indeed in her confidence. Having got so far the rest was easy.
How the acquisition of the already celebrated Diamond Necklace was first thought of, how, by the aid of willing tools, she matured and carried out her deep-laid and diabolical scheme, reads like an adventure from the "Arabian Nights." The personification of the Queen by a little dressmaker who happened to resemble her, the forgery of the Royal signature, the final attainment of the diamonds, all seemed so easy to this consummate trickster that it is small wonder she became intoxicated with success and blind to consequences. No sooner was the necklace in her possession than, of course, as fast as possible it was turned, not into money, but into money's worth. Houses and lands, equipages and furniture, costly apparel, and delicacies for the table were purchased, not with louis d'or, but with diamonds.
We read of her triumphant entry into the little town of Bar-sur-Aube, cradle of the Saint Remy-Valois family, in a berline with white trappings and the Valois armorials, before and behind the carriage, which was drawn by "four English horses with short tails," rode lacqueys, whilst on the footboard ready to open the door stood a negro, "covered, from head to foot with silver." Still more dazzling was the dress of Madame la Comtesse, richest brocade trimmed with rubies and emeralds. As to the Count, not content with having rings on every finger he wore four gold watch chains! Besides holding open house when at home, the pair had a table always spread with dainties for those who chose to partake in their hosts' absence. Among the toys paid for in diamonds was an automatic bird that warbled and flapped its wings. This was intended for the amusement of visitors.
The carnival proved of short duration. It was on the 1st of February, 1783, that the diamond necklace was handed over to Madame de la Motte, Rohan receiving in return the forged signature of "Marie-Antoinette de France." On August of the same year, in the midst of a banquet given at Bar-sur-Aube, a visitor arrived with startling news. "The Prince Cardinal de Rohan, Grand Almoner of France, was on the Festival of Assumption, arrested in pontifical robes, charged with having purchased a diamond necklace in the name of the Queen."
The charm of these little French towns and rustic spots lies in their remoteness, the feeling they give us of being so entirely aloof from familiar surroundings. In many a small Breton or Norman town we hear little else but English speech, and in the one general shop of tiny villages see The New York Herald on sale. But from the time of leaving Nemours to that of reaching the farthest point mentioned in these sketches we encounter no English or American tourists. This essentially foreign atmosphere is not less agreeable than conducive to instruction. We are thus thrown into direct contact with the country people and are enabled to realise French modes of life and thought.
ST. JEAN DE LOSNE.
Within the last twenty-five years so many new lines of railway have been opened in France that there is no longer any inducement—I am inclined to say excuse—for keeping to the main road. Yet, strangely enough, English tourists mostly ignore such opportunities. For one fellow-countryman we meet on the route described here, hundreds are encountered on the time-honoured roads running straight from Paris to Switzerland. Quit Dijon by any other way and the English-speaking world is lost sight of, perhaps more completely than anywhere else on the civilised globe. Again and again it has happened to myself to be regarded in rural France as a kind of curiosity, the first subject of Queen Victoria ever met with; again and again I have spent days, nay weeks, on French soil, the sole reminder of my native land being the daily paper posted in London. It is now many years since I first visited St. Jean de Losne, in company of a French acquaintance, a notary, both of us being bound to a country-house on the Saone. At that time the railway did not connect it with Dijon, and in brilliant September weather we jogged along by diligence, a pleasant five hours' journey enough. My companion, a native of the Cote d'Or, seemed to know everyone we passed on the way, whenever we stopped to change horses getting out for a gossip with this friend and that he had taken the precaution to provide himself with a huge loaf of bread, from which he hacked off morsels for us both from time to time. As we had started at seven o'clock in the morning, and got no dejeuner till past noon, the doles were acceptable. The fellow-traveller of that first journey—alas! With how many friends of the wine country!—has long since gone to his rest. The second time I set forth alone, taking my seat in the slow—the very slow—train running alongside the Canal de Bourgogne. On the central platforms of the Dijon railway station, crowds of English and American tourists were hurrying to their trains, bound respectively for Paris and Geneva. No sooner was I fairly off, my fellow travellers being two or three country-folks, than the conventionalities of travel had vanished. Surroundings as well as scenery became entirely French.
The Burgundian character is very affable, and although people may wonder what can be your errand in remote regions, they never show their curiosity after disagreeable fashion. They are delighted to discover that interest in France—artistic, economic, or industrial— has led you thither, and will afford any assistance or information in their power. They seem to regard the wayfaring Britisher as whimsical, that is all.
A train that crawls has this advantage, we can see everything by the way, villages, crops, and methods of cultivation. The landscape soon changes. The familiar characteristics of the wine country disappear. Instead of vine-clad hills, nurseries of young plants grafted on American stocks, and vineyard after vineyard in rich maturity, we now see hop gardens, colza fields, and wide pastures. Here and there we obtain a glimpse of some walled-in farmhouse, recalling the granges of our own Isle of Wight.
Alongside the railway runs the canal, that important waterway connecting the Seine with the Saone; but the Saone itself, Mr. Hamerton's favourite river, is not seen till we reach our destination.
The little town of St. Jean de Losne, although unknown to English readers, is one of the most historic of France. No other, indeed, boasts of more honourable renown. As Jeanne d'Arc had done just two centuries before, St. Jean de Losne saved the country in 1636. When the Imperial forces under Galas attempted the occupation of Burgundy, the dauntless townsfolk long held the enemy at bay and compelled final retreat. After generations profited by this heroism. Until the great year of 1789, the town, by royal edict, enjoyed complete immunity from taxation. On the outbreak of the Revolution, with true patriotic spirit, the citizens surrendered those privileges, of their own free will sharing the public burdens.
The first sight that meets the eye on entering St. Jean de Losne is the monument erected in commemoration of the siege. "Better late than never," is a proverb applicable to public as well as private affairs of conscience.
A little farther, and we reach the church of St. Jean. It contains a magnificent pulpit, carved from a single block of rich red marble, the niches ornamented with charming statuettes of the apostles. Close by is the Hotel de Ville, in which are some interesting historic relics. As I passed through the courtyard, I saw an odd sight. One might have fancied that a second Imperial army threatened a siege, and that the townsfolk were laying in stores. The pavement was piled with bread and meat, whilst butchers and bakers were busily engaged in dividing these into portions, authorities, municipal, military and police, looking on.
I learned that these rations were for the regiments quartered in the town during the autumn manoeuvres. Every day such distributions take place; in country places the troops have recourse to the peasants, very often being treated as guests. A young friend, serving his three years, told me that nowhere had he found country folk more hospitable than in the Cote d'Or. No sooner did the soldiers make their appearance in a village, than forth came the inhabitants to welcome them, officers being carried off to chateaux, men by twos and threes to the home of cure or small owner. "Not a peasant," he said, "but would bring up a bottle of good wine from his cellar, and often after dinner we would get up a dance out of doors. On the saddle sometimes from two in the morning till twelve at noon, the kind reception and the jollity of the evening made up for the hardship and fatigue. We have just had several days of bad weather, and had to sleep on straw in barns and outhouses, wherever indeed shelter was to be had. Not one of us ever lost heart or temper; we remained gay as larks all the time."
An hour's railway journey from St. Jean de Losne takes the traveller to Lons-le-Saulnier, beautifully situated at the foot of the Jura range on the threshold of wild and romantic scenery.
A decade had not robbed this little town of its old-world look familiar to me, but meantime a new Lons-le-Saulnier had sprung up. Since my first visit a handsome bathing establishment has been built, with casino, concert-room, and all the other essentials of an inland watering-place. The waters are especially recommended for skin affections, gout, and rheumatism. Formerly the mineral springs of Lons, as the townsfolk lazily call the place, were chiefly frequented by residents and near neighbours. Improved accommodation, increased accessibility, cheapened travel and additional attractions, have changed matters. The season opening in May, and lasting till the end of October, is now patronised by hundreds of visitors from all parts of eastern France. These health resorts are much more sociable than our own. Folks drop alike social, political, and religious differences for the time being, and cultivate the art of being agreeable as only French people can. Excursions, picnics, and pleasure parties are arranged; in the evening the young folks dance whilst their elders play a rubber of whist, chat, look on, or make marriages. Many a wedding is arranged during the Saison des Bains, nor can such unions be called mariages de convenance, as in holiday-time intercourse is comparatively unrestricted. Grown-up or growing-up sons and daughters then meet as those on English or American soil.
Lons-le-Saulnier possesses little of interest except its Museum, rich in modern sculpture, and its quaint arcades, recalling the period of Spanish rule in Franche Comte. The excursions lying within easy reach are numerous and delightful. Foremost of these is a visit to the marvellous rock-shut valley of Baume-les-Messieurs, so called to distinguish it from Baume-les-Dames near Besancon. The descent is made on foot, and at first sight appears not only perilous but impracticable, the zigzag path being cut in almost perpendicular shelves of rock. This mountain staircase, or the "Echelle des Baumes," is not to be recommended to those afflicted with giddiness. Little sunshine reaches the heart of the gorge, yet below the turf is brilliant, a veritable islet of green threaded by a tiny river. The natural walls shutting us in have a majestic aspect, but playful and musical is the Seille as it ripples at our feet. Travellers of an adventuresome turn can explore the stalactite caverns and other marvels around; not the least of these is a tiny lake, the depth of which has never been sounded. For half-a-mile the valley winds towards the straggling village of Baume, and there the marvels abruptly end.
Nothing finer in the way of scenery is to be found throughout eastern France. In the ancient Abbey Church are two masterpieces, a retable in carved wood and a tomb ornamented with exquisite statuettes.
It is a pleasant six hours' journey from Dijon via Chalindrey to Nancy. We pass the little village of Gemeaux, in which amongst French friends I have spent so many happy days.
From the railway we catch sight of the monticule crowned by an obelisk; surmounting the vine-clad slopes, we also obtain a glimpse of its "Ormes de Sully," or group of magnificent elms, one of many in France supposed to have been planted by the great Sully. Since my first acquaintance with this neighbourhood, more than twenty years ago, the aspect of the country hereabouts has in no small degree changed. Hop gardens in many spots have replaced vineyards, owing to the devastation of the phylloxera. It was in the last years of the third Empire that the inhabitants of Roquemaure on the Rhone found their vines mysteriously withering.
A little later the left bank was attacked, and about the same time the famous brandy producing region of Cognac in the Charente showed similar symptoms. The cause of the mischief, the terrible Phylloxera devastatrix, was brought to light in 1868. This tiny insect is hardly visible to the naked eye, yet so formed by Nature as to be a wholesale engine of destruction, its phenomenal productiveness being no less fatal than its equally phenomenal powers of locomotion. One of these tiny parasites alone propagates at the rate of millions of eggs in a season, a thousand alone sufficing to destroy two acres and a half of vineyard. As formidable as this terrible fertility is the speed of the insect's wings or rather sails according extraordinary ease of movement. A gust of wind, a mere breath of air, and like a grain of dust or a tuft of thistledown, this germ of destruction is borne whither chance directs, to the certain ruin of any vineyard on which it lights. The havoc spread with terrible rapidity. From every vine- growing region of France arose cries of consternation. Within the space of a few years hundreds of thousands of acres were hopelessly blighted. In 1878 the invader was first noticed at Meursault in Burgundy; a few days later it appeared in the Botanical Gardens of Dijon. The cost of replanting vineyards with American stocks is so heavy, viz.: twenty pounds per hectare, that even many rich vintagers have preferred to cultivate other crops. Some owners have sold their lands outright.