Part 1 out of 3
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EAST OF PARIS
SKETCHES IN THE GATINAIS, BOURBONNAIS, AND CHAMPAGNE
By MISS BETHAM-EDWARDS
XL.--NEVERS AND MOULINS
XII.--SOUVIGNY AND SENS
XVII.--SOULAINES AND BAR-SUR-AUBE
XVIII.--ST. JEAN DE LOSNE
XX.--IN GERMANISED LORRAINE
XXI.--IN GERMANISED ALSACE
I here propose to zig-zag with my readers through regions of Eastern
France not described in any of my former works. The marvels of French
travel, no more than the _chefs-d'oeuvre_ of French literature, are
unlimited. Short of saluting the tricolour on Mont Blanc, or of echoing
the Marseillaise four hundred and odd feet underground in the cave of
Padirac, I think I may fairly say that I have exhausted France as a
wonder-horn. But quiet beauties and homely graces have also their
seduction, just as we turn with a sense of relief from "Notre Dame de
Paris" or "Le Pere Goriot," to a domestic story by Rod or Theuriet, so
the sweet little valley of the Loing refreshes after the awful Pass of
Gavarni, and soothing to the ear is the gentle flow of its waters after
the thundering Rhone. Majestic is the panorama spread before our eyes as
we pic-nic on the Puy de Dome. More fondly still my memory clings to
many a narrower perspective, the view of my beloved Dijon from its
vine-clad hills or of Autun as approached from Pre Charmoy, to me, the
so familiar home of the late Philip Gilbert Hamerton. If, however, the
natural marvels of France, like those of any other country, can be
catalogued, French scenery itself offers inexhaustible variety. And so,
having visited, re-visited, and re-visited again this splendid hexagon
on the European map, I yet find in the choice of holiday resorts a
veritable _embarras de richesses_. And many of the spots here described
will, I have no doubt, be as new to my readers as they have been to
myself--_Larchant_ with its noble tower rising from the plain, recalling
the still nobler ruin of Tclemcen on the borders of the
Sahara--_Recloses_ with its pictorial interiors and grand promontory
overlooking a panorama of forest, sombre purplish green ocean unflecked
by a single sail--_Moret_ with its twin water-ways, one hardly knows
which of the two being the more attractive--_Nemours_, favourite haunt
of Balzac, memoralized in "Ursule Mirouet"--_La Charite_, from whose
old-world dwellings you may throw pebbles into the broad blue
Loire--_Pougues_, the prettiest place with the ugliest name, frequented
by Mme. de Sevigne and valetudinarians of the Valois race generations
before her time--_Souvigny_, cradle of the Bourbons, now one vast
congeries of abbatial ruins--_Arcis-sur-Aube_, the sweet riverside home
of Danton--its near neighbour, _Bar-sur-Aube_, connected with a bitterer
enemy of Marie Antoinette than the great revolutionary himself, the
infamous machinator of the Diamond Necklace. These are a few of the
sweet nooks and corners to which of late years I have returned again and
again, ever finding "harbour and good company." And these journeys, I
should rather say visits, East of Paris led me once more to that sad
yearning France beyond the frontier, to homes as French, to hearts as
devoted to the motherland as when I first visited the annexed provinces
twenty years ago!
EAST OF PARIS
Scores upon scores of times had I steamed past Melun in the Dijon
express, ever eyeing the place wistfully, ever too hurried, perhaps too
lazy, to make a halt. Not until September last did I carry out a long
cherished intention. It is unpardonable to pass and re-pass any French
town without alighting for at least an hour's stroll!
Melun, capital of the ancient Gatinais, now chef-lieu of the Department
of Seine and Marne, well deserves a visit. Pretty as Melun looks from
the railway it is prettier still on nearer approach. The Seine here
makes a loop, twice curling round the town with loving embrace, its
walls and old world houses to-day mirrored in the crystal-clear river.
Like every other French town, small or great, Melun possesses its outer
ring of shady walks, boulevards lying beyond the river-side quarters.
The place has a busy, prosperous, almost metropolitan look, after the
village just left. [Footnote: For symmetry's sake I begin these records
at Melun, although I halted at the place on my way from my third sojourn
at Bourron.] The big, bustling Hotel du Grand Monarque too, with its
brisk, obliging landlady, invited a stay. Dr. Johnson, perhaps the
wittiest if the completest John Bull who ever lived, was not far wrong
when he glorified the inn. "Nothing contrived by man," he said, "has
produced so much happiness (relaxation were surely the better word?) as
a good tavern." Do we not all, to quote Falstaff, "take our ease at our
inn," under its roof throwing off daily cares, assuming a holiday mood?
A survey of the yard awoke another train of reflections. It really seems
as if the invention of the motor car were bringing back ante-railway
days for the tourist and the travelling world, recalling family coach
and post-chaise. The place was crowded with motor cars of all shapes and
sizes, some of these were plain, shabby gigs and carts of commercial
travellers, others, landaus, waggonettes and victorias of rich folks
seeing the world in their own carriage as their ancestors had done
generations before; one turn-out suggested royalty or a Rothschild, I
was about to say, rather I should name a Chicago store-keeper, since
American millionaires are the Haroun-el-Raschids of the twentieth
century. This last was a sumptuously fitted up carriage having a seat
behind for servants, accommodating eight persons in all. There was also
a huge box for luggage. It would be interesting to know how much
petroleum, electricity, or alcohol such a vehicle would consume in a
day. The manufacture of motor cars must be a very flourishing business
in France, next, I should say, to that of bicycles. Of these also there
was a goodly supply in the entrance hall of the inn, and the impetus
given to travel by both motor car and bicycle was here self-evident. The
Hotel du Grand Monarque literally swarmed with tourists, one and all
French folks taking their ease at their inn. And our neighbours do not
take their pleasure solemnly after the manner of the less impressionable
English. Stay-at-home as they have hitherto been, home-loving as they
essentially are, the atmosphere of an inn, the aroma of a holiday, fill
the Frenchman's cup of hilarity to overflowing, rendering gayer the
The invention and rapidly spreading use of the motor car in France shows
the French character under its revolutionary aspect, yet no people on
the face of the earth are in many respects so conservative. We English
folks want a new "Where is it?" for social purposes every year, the
majority of our friends and acquaintances changing their houses almost
as often as milliners and tailors change the fashion in bonnets and
coats. A single address book for France supplies a life-time. The
explanation is obvious. For the most part we live in other folks' houses
whilst French folks, the military and official world excepted, occupy
their own. Revisit provincial gentry or well-to-do bourgeoisie after an
interval of a quarter of a century, you always find them where they
were. Interiors show no more change than the pyramids of Egypt. Not so
much as sixpence has been laid out upon new carpets or curtains. Could
grandsires and granddames return to life like the Sleeping Beauty, they
would find that the world had stood still during their slumber.
Melun possesses perhaps one of the few statues that may not be called
superfluous, and I confess I had been attracted thither rather by
memories of its greatest son than by its picturesque scenery and fine
old churches. The first translator of Plutarch into his native tongue
was born here, and as we should expect, has been worthily commemorated
by his fellow citizens. A most charming statue of Amyot stands in front
of the grey, turreted Hotel de Ville. In sixteenth century doctoral
dress, loose flowing robes and square flat cap, sits the great
scholiast, as intently absorbed in his book as St. Jerome in the
exquisite canvas of our own National Gallery.
Behind the Hotel de Ville an opening shows a small, beautifully kept
flower garden, just now a blaze of petunias, zinnias, and a second crop
of roses. Long I lingered before this noble monument, one only of the
many raised to Amyot's memory, of whom Montaigne wrote:--
"Ignoramuses that we are, we should all have been lost, had not this
book (the translation of Plutarch) dragged us out of the mire; thanks to
it, we now venture to write and to discourse."
And musing on the scholar and his kindred, a favourite line of
Browning's came into my mind--
"This man decided not to live but to know."
Indeed the whole of "A Grammarian's Funeral" were here appropriate. Is
it not men after this type of whom we feel
"Our low life was the level's and the night's. He's for the morning"?
To my surprise I found the church of St. Aspais locked. A courteous
hair-dresser thereupon told me that all churches in Melun were closed
from noon till half past one, but that, as noon had only just struck, if
I were brisk I might possibly catch the sacristan. After a pretty hot
chase I succeeded in finding a deaf, decrepit, dingy old man who showed
me round the church, although evidently very impatient for his mid-day
meal. He informed me that this closing of churches at Melun had been
necessitated of late years by a series of robberies. From twelve till
half past one o'clock no worshippers are present as a rule, hence the
thieves' opportunity. Unfortunately marauders do not strip beautiful
interiors of the tinselly gew-gaws that so often deface them; in this
respect, however, St. Aspais being comparatively an exception. Alike
within and without the proportions are magnificent, and the old stained
glass is not marred by modern crudities. I do not here by any means
exhaust the sights of this ancient town, from which, by the way,
Barbizon is now reached in twenty minutes, an electric tramway plying
regularly between Melun and that famous art pilgrimage.
The valley of the Loing abounds in captivating spots, Moret-sur-Loing
bearing the palm. Over the ancient town, bird-like broods a majestic
church, as out-spread wings its wide expanse of roof, while below by
translucent depths and foliage richly varied, stretch quarters old and
new, the canal intersecting the river at right angles. Lovely as is the
river on which all who choose may spend long summer days, the canal to
my thinking is lovelier still. Straight as an arrow it saunters between
avenues of poplar, the lights and shadows of wood and water, the
sunburnt, stalwart barge folk, their huge gondoliers affording endless
pictures. Hard as is undoubtedly the life of the rope tower, rude as may
appear this amphibious existence, there are cheerful sides to the
picture. Many of these floating habitations possess a fireside nook cosy
as that of a Parisian concierge, I was never tired of strolling along
the canal and watching the barge folk. One day a friend and myself found
a large barge laden with coal at the head of the canal, the huge dark
framework and its sombre burden lighted up with touches of grace and
colour. At the farther end of the vessel was hung a cage of canaries, at
the other end was a stand of pot-flowers, geraniums and petunias in full
bloom and all the more brilliant by virtue of contrast. A neighbour of
the bargeman, a bright, intelligent woman, brown as a gipsy but
well-spoken and of tidy appearance, invited us to enter. Imagine the
neatest, prettiest little room in the world, parlour, bedchamber and
kitchen in one, every object so placed as to make the most of available
space. On a small side-table--and of course under such circumstances
each article must be sizable--stood a sewing machine, in the corner was
a bedstead with exquisitely clean bedding, in another a tiny cooking
stove. Vases of flowers, framed pictures and ornamental quicksilver
balls had been found place for, this bargewoman's home aptly
illustrating Shakespeare's adage--"Order gives all things view." The
brisk, weather-beaten mistress now came up, no little gratified by our
interest and our praises.
"You ladies would perhaps like to make a little journey with me?" she
asked, "nothing easier, we start to-morrow morning at six o'clock for
Nevers, you could take the train back."
Never perhaps in our lives had myself and my companion received an
invitation so out of the way, so bewilderingly tempting! And we felt
too, with a pang, that never again in all probability should we receive
such another. But on this especial day we were not staying at Moret,
only running over for the afternoon from our headquarters at Bourron.
Acceptance was thus hemmed round with small impediments. And by way of
consolation, next morning the glorious weather broke. A downpour
recalling our own lakeland would anyhow have kept us ashore.
"Another time then!" had said the kind hostess of the barge at parting.
She seemed as sorry as ourselves that the little project she had mooted
so cordially could not be carried out.
The Loing canal joins the Seine at Saint Mammes, a few kilometres lower
down, continuing its course of thirty kilometres to Bleneau in the
Nievre. Canal life in Eastern France is a characteristic feature, the
whole region being intersected by a network of waterways, those _chemins
qui marchent_, or walking roads as Michelet picturesquely calls them.
And strolling on the banks of the canal here you may be startled by an
astonishing sight, you see folks walking, or apparently walking, on
water. Standing bolt upright on a tiny raft, carefully maintaining their
balance, country people are towed from one side to the other.
These suburban and riverside quarters are full of charm. The soft reds
and browns of the houses, the old-world architecture and romantic sites,
tempt an artist at every turn. And all in love with a Venetian existence
may here find it nearer home.
A few villas let furnished during the summer months have little lawns
winding down to the water's edge and a boat moored alongside. Thus their
happy inmates can spend hot, lazy days on the river.
Turning our backs on the canal, by way of ivy-mantled walls, ancient
mills and tumbledown houses, we reach the Porte du Pont or Gate of the
Bridge. With other towns of the period, Moret was fortified. The girdle
of walls is broken and dilapidated, whilst firm as when erected in the
fourteenth century still stand the city gates.
Of the two the Porte du Pont is the least imposing and ornamental, but
it possesses a horrifying interest. In an upper storey is preserved one
of those man-cages said to have been invented for the gratification of
Louis XI, that strange tyrant to whose ears were equally acceptable the
shrieks of his tortured victims and the apt repartee of ready-witted
"How much do you earn a day?" he once asked a little scullion, as
incognito he entered the royal kitchen.
"By God's grace as much as the King," replied the lad; "I earn my bread
and he can do no more."
So pleased was the King with this saying that it made the speaker's
We climb two flights of dark, narrow stone stairs reaching a bare
chamber having small apertures, enlargements of the mere slits formerly
admitting light and air. The man-cage occupies one corner. It is made of
stout oaken ribs strongly bound together with iron, its proportions just
allowing the captive to lie down at full length and take a turn of two
or three steps. De Commines tells us that the cage invented by Cardinal
Balue, and in which he languished for eleven years, was narrower still.
An average sized man could not stand therein upright.
The bolts and bars are still in perfect order. Nothing more brings home
to us the abomination of the whole thing than to see the official draw
these Brobdingnagian bolts and turn these gigantic keys. The locksmith's
art was but too well understood in those days. By whom and for whom this
living tomb was made or brought hither local records do not say.
From a stage higher up a magnificent panorama is obtained, Moret, old
and new, set round with the green and the blue, its greenery and bright
river, far away its noble aqueduct, further still looking eastward the
valley of the Loing spread out as a map, the dark ramparts of
Fontainebleau forest half framing the scene.
The town itself is a trifle unsavoury and unswept. Municipal authorities
seem particularly stingy in the matter of brooms, brushes and
water-carts. Such little disagreeables must not prevent the traveller
from exploring every corner. But the real, the primary attraction of
Moret lies less in its historic monuments and antiquated streets than in
its _chemins qui marchent_, its ever reposeful water-ways. Like most
French towns Moret is linked with English history. Its fine old church
was consecrated by Thomas a-Becket in 1166. Three hundred years later
the town was taken by Henry V., and re-taken by Charles VII. a decade
after. Not long since five hundred skulls supposed to have been those of
English prisoners were unearthed here; as they were all found massed
together, the theory is that the entire number had surrendered and been
summarily decapitated, methods of warfare that have apparently found
advocates in our own day.
Most visitors to Paris will have had pointed out to them the so-called
"Maison Francois Premier" on the Cour La Reine. This richly ornate and
graceful specimen of Renaissance architecture formerly stood at Moret,
and bit by bit was removed to the capital in 1820. A spiral stone
staircase and several fragments of heraldic sculpture were left behind.
Badly placed as the house was here, it seems a thousand pities that
Moret should have thus been robbed of an architectural gem Paris could
well have spared.
My first stay at Moret three years ago lasted several weeks. I had
joined friends occupying a pretty little furnished house belonging to
the officiating Mayor. We lived after simplest fashion but to our
hearts' content. One of those indescribably obliging women of all work,
came every day to cook, clean and wait on us. Most of our meals were
taken among our flower beds and raspberry bushes. The only drawback to
enjoyment may at first sight appear unworthy of mention, but it was not
so. We had no latchkey. Now as every-one of all work knows, they are
constantly popping in and out of doors, one moment they are off to
market, the next to warm up their husbands' soup, and so on and so on.
As for ourselves, were we not at Moret on purpose to be perpetually
running about also? Thus it happened that somebody or other was always
being locked out or locked in; either Monsieur finding the household
abroad had pocketed the key and instead of returning in ten minutes'
time had lighted upon a subject he must absolutely sketch then and
there; or Madame could not get through her shopping as expeditiously as
she had hoped; or their guest returned from her walk long before she was
due; what with one miscalculation and another, now one of us had to
knock at a neighbour's door, now another effected an entrance by means
of a ladder, and now the key would be wholly missing and for the time
being we were roofless, as if burnt out of house and home. Sometimes we
were locked in, sometimes we were locked out, a current "Open Sesame" we
But no "regrettable incidents" marred a delightful holiday. Imbroglios
such as these only leave memories to smile at, and add zest to
Two years ago some Anglo-French friends joyfully announced their
acquisition of a delightful little property adjoining Fontainebleau
forest. "Come and see for yourself," they wrote, "we are sure that you
will be charmed with our purchase!" A little later I journeyed to
Bourron, half an hour from Moret on the Bourbonnais line, on arriving
hardly less disconcerted than Mrs. Primrose by the gross of green
spectacles. No trim, green verandahed villa, no inviting vine-trellised
walk, no luxuriant vegetable garden or brilliant flower beds greeted my
eyes; instead, dilapidated walls, abutting on these a peasant's cottage,
and in front an acre or two of bare dusty field! My friends had indeed
become the owners of a dismantled bakery and its appurtenances, to the
uninitiated as unpromising a domain as could well be imagined. But I
discovered that the purchasers were wiser in their generation than
myself. Noticing my crestfallen look they had said:--
"Only wait till next year, and you will see what a bargain we have made.
You will find us admirably housed and feasting on peaches and grapes."
True enough, twelve months later, I found a wonderful transformation.
That a substantial dwelling now occupied the site of the dismantled
bakery was no matter for surprise, the change out of doors seemed
magical. Nothing could have looked more unpromising than that stretch of
field, a mere bit of waste, your feet sinking into the sand as if you
were crossing the desert. Now, the longed-for _tonnelle_ or vine-covered
way offered shade, petunias made a splendid show, choice roses scented
the air, whilst the fruit and vegetables would have done credit to a
market-gardener. Peaches and grapes ripened on the wall, big turnips and
tomatoes brilliant as vermilion took care of themselves. It was not only
a case of the wilderness made to blossom as the rose, but of the horn of
plenty filled to overflowing, prize flowers, fruit and vegetables
everywhere. For the soil hereabouts, if indeed soil it can be called,
and the climate of Bourron, possess very rare and specific qualities. On
this light, dry sand, or dust covering a substratum of rock, vegetation
springs up all but unbidden, and when once above ground literally takes
care of itself. As to climate, its excellence may be summed up in the
epithet, anti-asthmatic. Although we are on the very hem of forty
thousand acres of forest, the atmosphere is one of extraordinary
dryness. Rain may fall in torrents throughout an entire day. The sandy
soil is so thorough an absorbent that next morning the air will be as
dry as usual.
This house reminded me of a tiny side door opening into some vast
cathedral. We cross the threshold and find ourselves at once in the
forest, in close proximity moreover to its least-known but not least
majestic sites. We may turn either to right or left, gradually climbing
a densely wooded headland. The first ascent lands us in an hour on the
Redoute de Bourron, the second, occupying only half the time, on a spur
of the forest offering a less famous but hardly less magnificent
perspective, nothing to mar the picture as a whole, sunny plain, winding
river and scattered townlings looking much as they must have done to
Balzac when passing through three-quarters of a century ago.
This eastern verge of the Fontainebleau forest is of especial beauty;
the frowning headlands seem set there as sentinels jealously guarding
its integrity, on the watch against human encroachments, defying time
and change and cataclysmal upheaval. Boldly stands out each wooded crag,
the one confronting the rising, the other the sinking sun, behind both
massed the world of forest, spread before them as a carpet, peaceful
I must now describe a spot, the name of which will probably be new to
all excepting close students of Balzac. The great novelist loved the
valley of the Loing almost as fondly as his native Touraine; and if
these pastoral scenes did not inspire a _chef d'oeuvre_, they have
thereby immensely gained in interest. "Ursule Mirouet," of which I shall
have more to say further on, is not to be compared to such masterpieces
as "Eugenie Grandet." But a leading incident of "Ursule Mirouet" occurs
at Bourron--a sufficient reason for recalling the story here.
The beauty of our village, like the beauty of French women, to quote
Michelet, "is made up of little nothings." There are a hundred and one
pretty things to see but very few to describe. Who could wish it
otherwise? Little nothings of an engaging kind better agree with us as
daily fare than the seven wonders of the world. With forty thousand
acres of forest at our doors we do not want M. Mattel's newly discovered
underground river within reach as well.
From our garden we yet look upon scenes not of every day. Those sweeps
of bluish-green foliage strikingly contrasted with the brilliant vine
remind us that we are in France, and in a region with most others having
its specialities. Asparagus, not literally but figuratively, nourishes
the entire population of Bourron. Everyone here is a market gardener on
his own account, and the cultivation of asparagus for the Paris markets
is a leading feature of local commerce.
There is no more graceful foliage than that of this plant, and
gratefully the eye rests upon these waves of delicate green under a
blazing, grape-ripening sky. Making gold-green lines between are vines,
a succession of asparagus beds and vineyards separating our village from
its better known and more populous neighbour, Marlotte. In the opposite
direction we see brown-roofed, white-walled houses surmounted by a
pretty little spire. This is Bourron. To reach it we pass a double row
of homesteads, rustic interiors of small farmer or market gardener, the
one, as our French neighbours say, more picturesque than the other.
Each, no matter how ill kept, is set off by an ornamental border,
zinnias, begonias, roses and petunias as obviously showing signs of care
and science. Oddly enough the finest display of flowers often adorns the
least tidy premises. And oddly enough, rather perhaps as we should
expect it, in not one, but in every respect, this French village is the
exact opposite of its English counterpart. In England every tenant of a
cottage pays rent, there, not an inhabitant, however poor, but sits
under his own vine and his own fig-tree. In England the farm-house faces
the road and the premises lie behind. Here manure-heap, granary and pig
styes open on the highway, the dwellings being at the back. In England a
man's home, called his castle, is no more defended than the Bedouin's
tent. Here at nightfall the small peasant proprietor is as securely
entrenched within walls as a feudal baron in his moated chateau. In
England ninety-nine householders out of a hundred are perpetually
changing their domicile. Here folks live and die under the paternal roof
that has sheltered generations. Nor does diversity end with
circumstances and surroundings. As will be seen in another chapter,
habits of life, modes of thought and standards of duty show contrasts
Bourron possesses twelve hundred and odd souls, most of whom are
peasants who make a living out of their small patrimony. Destined
perhaps one day to rival its neighbour Marlotte in popularity--even to
become a second Barbizon--it is as yet the sleepiest, most rustic
retreat imaginable. The climate would appear to be not only
anti-asthmatic but anti-everything in the shape of malady. Anyhow, if
folks fall ill they have to send elsewhere for a doctor. Minor
complaints--cuts, bruises and snake bites--are attended to by a
Fontainebleau chemist. Every day we hear the horn of his messenger who
cycles through the village calling for prescriptions and leaving drugs
A post office, of course, Bourron possesses, but let no one imagine that
a post office in out of the way country places implies a supply of
postage stamps. English people are the greatest scribblers by post in
the world, whilst our wiser French neighbours appear to be the laziest.
An amusing dilemma had occurred here just before my arrival. One day my
friends applied to the post office for stamps, but none were to be had
for love or money. Off somebody cycled to Marlotte, which possesses not
only a post and telegraph, but a money order office as well--same reply,
next the adjoining village of Grez was visited and with no better
result--"Supplies have not yet reached us from headquarters," said the
Perhaps instead of smiling contemptuously we should take a moral to
heart. The amount of time, money, eyesight and handcraft expended among
ourselves on letter writing so-called is simply appalling. Was it not
Napoleon who said that all letters if left unanswered for a month
answered themselves? Too many Englishwomen spend the greater portion of
the day in what is no longer a delicate art, but mere time-killing,
after the manner of patience, games of cards and similar pastimes.
Bourron is a most orderly village; within its precincts liberty is not
allowed to degenerate into licence. As in summer-time folks are fond of
spending their evenings abroad, a municipal law has enforced quiet after
ten o'clock. Thus precisely on the stroke of ten, alike cafe, garden,
private summer-house or doorstep are deserted, everyone betakes himself
indoors, leaving his neighbours to enjoy unbroken repose. A most
salutary by-law! Would it were put in force throughout the length and
breadth of France! At Chatouroux I have been kept awake all night by the
gossip of a _sergeant de ville_ and a lounger close to my window. At
Tours, La Chatre and Bourges my fellow-traveller and myself could get no
sleep on account of street revellers, whilst at how many other places
have not holiday trips been spoiled by unquiet nights? All honour then
to the aediles of dear little Bourron!
Forty thousand acres of woodland at one's doors would seem a fact
sufficiently suggestive; to particularize the attractions of Bourron
after this statement were surely supererogation. Yet, for my own
pleasure as much as for the use of my readers, I must jot down one or
two especially persistent memories, impressions of solemnity, beauty and
repose never to be effaced.
Of course it is only the cyclist who can realise such an immensity as
the Fontainebleau forest. From end to end these vast sweeps are now
intersected by splendid roads and by-roads. Old-fashioned folks, for
whom the horseless vehicle came too late, can but envy wheelmen and
wheelwomen as they skim through vista after vista, outstripping one's
horse and carriage as a greyhound outstrips a decrepit poodle. On the
other hand only inveterate loiterers, the Lazy Lawrences of travel, can
appreciate the subtler beauties of this woodland world. There are
certain sights and sounds not to be caught by hurried observers,
evanescent aspects of cloud-land and tree-land, rock and undergrowth,
passing notes of bird and insect, varied melodies, if we may so express
it, of summer breeze and autumn wind--in fine, a dozen experiences
enjoyed one day, not repeated on the next. The music of the forest is a
quiet music and has to be listened for, hardly on the cyclist's ear
falls the song or rather accompaniment of the grasshopper, "the Muse of
the wayside," a French poet has so exquisitely apostrophized.
One's forest companion should be of a taciturn and contemplative turn.
Only thus can we drink in the sense of such solitude and immensity;
realizing to the full what indeed these words may mean, he may wander
for hours without encountering a soul, very few birds are heard by the
way, but the hum of the insect world, that dreamy go-between, hardly
silence, hardly to be called noise, keeps us perpetual company, and our
eyes must ever be open for beautiful little living things. Now a green
and gold lizard flashes across a bit of grey rock, now a dragon-fly
disports its sapphire wings amid the yellowing ferns or purple ling,
butterflies, white, blue, and black and orange, flit hither and thither,
whilst little beetles, blue as enamel beads, enliven the mossy
One pre-eminent charm indeed of the Fontainebleau forest is this wealth
of undergrowth, bushes, brambles and ferns making a second lesser
thicket on all sides. In sociable moods delightful it is to go
a-blackberrying here. I am almost tempted to say that if you want to
realise the lusciousness of a hedgerow dessert you must cater for
yourself in these forty thousand acres of blackberry orchard.
But the foremost, the crowning excellence of Fontainebleau forest
consists in its variety. France itself, the "splendid hexagon," with its
mountains, rivers and plains, is hardly more varied than this vast area
of rock and woodland. We can choose between sites, savage or idyllic,
pastoral or grandiose, here finding a sunny glade, the very spot for a
picnic, there break-neck declivities and gloomy chasms. The magnificent
ruggedness of Alpine scenery is before our eyes, without the awfulness
of snow-clad peaks or the blinding dazzle of glacier. In more than one
place we could almost fancy that some mountain has been upheaved and
split asunder, the clefts formed by these gigantic fragments being now
filled with veteran trees.
The formation of the forest has puzzled geologists, to this day the
origin of its rocky substratum remaining undetermined.
Within half an hour's stroll of Bourron lies the so-called "Mare aux
Fees" or Fairies' Mere, as sweet a spot to boil one's kettle in as
holiday makers can desire, at the same time affording the best possible
illustration of what I have just insisted upon. For this favourite
resort is in a certain sense microcosmic, giving in miniature those
characteristics for which the forest is remarkable. Smooth and sunny as
a garden plot is the open glade wherein we now halt for tea, and while
the kettle boils we have time for a most suggestive bird's eye view. It
is a little world that we survey from the borders of this rock-hemmed,
forest-girt lake, one perspective after another with varying gradations
of colour making us realize the many-featured, chequered area spread
before us. From this coign of vantage are discerned alike the sterner
and the more smiling beauties of the forest, rocky defiles, gloomy
passes, sunlit lawns and mossy dells, scenery varied in itself and yet
varying again with the passing hour and changing month. And such
suggestion of almost infinite variety is not gained only from the
Fairies' Mere. From a dozen points, not the same view but the same kind
of view may be obtained, each differing from the other, except in charm
and immensity. Within a walk of home also stands one of the numerous
monuments scattered throughout the forest. The Croix de Saint Herem, now
a useful landmark for cyclists, has a curious history. It was erected in
1666 by a certain Marquis de Saint-Herem, celebrated for his ugliness,
and centuries later was the scene of the most extraordinary rendezvous
on record. Here, in 1804, every detail having been theatrically arranged
beforehand, took place the so-called chance meeting of Napoleon and Pope
Pius VII. The Emperor had arranged a grand hunt for that day, and in
hunting dress, his dogs at his heels, awaited the pontiff by the cross
of Saint Herem. As the pair lovingly embraced each other the Imperial
horses ran away; this apparent escapade formed part of the programme,
and Napoleon stepped into the Pope's carriage, seating himself on his
visitor's, rather his prisoner's, right. A few years later another
rencontre not without historic irony took place here. In 1816, Louis
XVIII. received on this spot the future mother, so it was hoped, of
French Kings, the adventurous Caroline of Naples, afterwards Duchesse de
The crosses monuments of the forest are usefully catalogued in local
guide-books, and many have historic associations. The most interesting
of these--readers will excuse the Irish bull--is a monument that may be
said never to have existed!
The great Polish patriot Kosciusko spent the last fifteen years of his
life in a hamlet near Nemours, and on his death the inhabitants of that
and neighbouring villages projected a double memorial, in other words, a
tiny chapel, the ruins of which are still seen near Episy, and a mound
to be added to every year and to be called "La Montagne de Kosciusko,"
or Kosciusko's mountain. Particulars of this generous and romantic
scheme are preserved in the archives of Montigny. The inauguration of
the mound took place on the ninth of October 1836. To the sound of
martial music, drums and cannon, the first layers of earth were
deposited, men, women and children taking part in the proceedings. A
year later no less than ten thousand French friends of Poland with
mattock and spade added several feet to Kosciusko's mountain. But the
celebration got noised abroad. Afraid of anti-Russian manifestations the
government of Louis Philippe prohibited any further Polish fetes. Thus
it came about that, as I have said, the most interesting monument in the
forest remains an idea. And all things considered, neither French nor
English admirers of the exiled hero could to-day very well carve on the
"And Freedom shrieked when Kosciusko fell."
Some time or other the Russian Imperial pair may visit Fontainebleau,
whilst an English tourist with _The Daily Mail_ in his pocket would
naturally and sheepishly look the other way.
Another half hour's stroll and we find ourselves in an atmosphere of
art, fashion and sociability. Only a mile either of woodland, field path
or high road separates Bourron from its more populous and highly popular
neighbour, Marlotte. Here every house has an artist's north window, the
road is alive with motor cars, you can even buy a newspaper! Marlotte
possesses a big, I should say comfortable, hotel, is very cosmopolitan
and very pretty. Anglo-French households here, as at Bourron, favour
Anglo-French relations. In Marlotte drawing-rooms we are in France, but
always with a pleasant reminder of England and of true English
I will now say something about my numerous acquaintances at Bourron.
After three summer holidays spent in this friendly little spot I can
boast of a pretty large visiting list, the kind of list requiring no
cards or ceremonious procedure. My hostess, a Frenchwoman, and myself
used to drop in for a chat with this neighbour and that whenever we
passed their way, always being cheerily welcomed and always pressed to
stay a little longer.
The French peasant is the most laborious, at the same time the most
leisurely, individual in the world. Urgent indeed must be those farming
operations that prevent him from enjoying a talk. Conversation,
interchange of ideas, give and take by word of mouth, are as necessary
to the Frenchman's well-being as oxygen to his lungs.
"Man," writes Montesquieu, "is described as a sociable animal." From
this point of view it appears to me that the Frenchman may be called
more of a man than others; he is first and foremost a man, since he
seems especially made for society.
Elsewhere the same great writer adds:--"You may see in Paris individuals
who have enough to live upon for the rest of their days, yet they labour
so arduously as to shorten their days, in order, as they say, to assure
themselves of a livelihood." These two marked characteristics are as
true of the French peasant now-a-days as of the polite society described
in the "Lettres Persanes." In the eighteenth century cultivated people
did little else but talk. Morning, noon and night, their epigrammatic
tongues were busy. Conversation in historic salons became a fine art.
There are no such literary coteries in our time. What with one
excitement and another, the Parisian world chats but has no time for
real conversation. Perhaps for _Gauloiseries_, true Gallic salt, we must
now go to the unlettered, the sons of the soil, whose ancestors were
boors when wit sparkled among their social superiors.
Here are one or two types illustrating both characteristics, excellent
types in their way of the small peasant proprietor hereabouts, a class
having no counterpart or approximation to a counterpart in England.
The first visit I describe was paid one evening to an old gardener whom
I will call the Pere A--. Bent partly with toil, partly with age, you
would have at once supposed that his working days were well over,
especially on learning his circumstances, for sole owner he was of the
little domain to which he had now retired for the day. Of benevolent
aspect, shrewd, every inch alive despite infirmities, he received his
neighbour and her English guest with rustic but cordial urbanity, at
once entering into conversation. With evident pride and pleasure he
watched my glances at premises and garden, house and outbuildings
ramshackle enough, even poverty-stricken to look at, here not an
indication of comfortable circumstances much less of independent means;
the bit of land half farm, half garden, however, was fairly well kept
and of course productive.
"Yes, this dwelling is mine and the two hectares (four acres four
hundred and odd feet), aye," he added self-complacently, "and I have a
little money besides."
"Yet you live here all by yourself and still work for wages?" I asked.
His reply was eminently characteristic. "I work for my children." These
children he told me were two grown up sons, one of them being like
himself a gardener, both having work. Thus in order to hoard up a little
more for two able-bodied young men, here was a bent, aged man living
penuriously and alone, his only companion being a beautiful and
evidently much petted donkey. I ventured to express an English view of
the matter, namely, the undesirability of encouraging idleness and
self-indulgence in one's children by toiling and moiling for them in old
He nodded his head.
"You are right, all that you say is true, but so it is with me. I must
work for my children."
And thus blindly are brought about the parricidal tragedies that Zola,
Guy de Maupassant and other novelists have utilized in fiction, and with
which we are familiarized in French criminal reports--parents and
grandparents got rid of for the sake of their coveted hoardings.
Thus also are generated in the rich and leisured classes that intense
selfishness of the rising generation so movingly portrayed in M.
Hervieu's play, "La Course du Flambeau." No one who has witnessed Mme.
Rejane's presentment of the adoring, disillusioned mother can ever
On leaving, the Pere A---- presented us with grapes and pears, carefully
selecting the finest for his English visitor.
At the gate I threw a Parthian dart.
"Don't work too hard," I said, whereupon came the burden of his song:
"One must work for one's children."
This good neighbour could neither read nor write, a quite exceptional
case in these days. Our second visit was made to a person similarly
situated, but belonging to a different order.
Madame B----, a widow, was also advanced in years and also lived by
herself on her little property, consisting of walled-in cottage and
outhouses, with straggling garden or rather orchard, garden and field in
This good woman is what country folks in these parts call rich. I have
no doubt that an English farmeress in her circumstances would have the
neatest little parlour, a tidy maid to wait upon her, and most likely
take afternoon tea in a black silk gown. Our hostess here wore the dress
of a poor but respectable working woman. Her interior was almost as bare
and primitive as that of the Boer farmhouse in the Paris Exhibition.
Although between six and seven o'clock, there was no sign whatever of
preparation for an evening meal. Indeed on every side things looked
poverty-stricken. Not a penny had evidently been spent upon kitchen or
bedrooms for years and years, the brick floor of both being bare, the
furniture having done duty for generations.
This "rentiere," or person living upon independent means, did not match
her sordid surroundings. Although toil-worn, tanned and wrinkled, her
face "brown as the ribbed sea-sand," there was a certain refinement
about look, speech and manner, distinguishing her from the good man her
neighbour. After a little conversation I soon found out that she had
"Living alone and finding the winter evenings long I hire books from a
lending library at Fontainebleau," she said.
I opened my eyes in amazement. Seldom indeed had I heard of a peasant
proprietor in France caring for books, much less spending money upon
"And what do you read?" I asked.
"Anything I can get," was the reply. "Madame's husband," here she looked
at my friend, "has kindly lent me several."
Among these I afterwards found had been Zola's "Rome" and "Le Desastre"
by the brothers Margueritte.
Like the Pere A---- she had married children and entertained precisely the
same notion of parental duty. The few sous spent upon such beguilement
of long winter nights were most likely economized by some little
deprivation. There is something extremely pathetic in this patriarchal
spirit, this uncompromising, ineradicable resolve to hand down a little
patrimony not only intact but enlarged.
"Our peasants live too sordidly," observed a Frenchman to me a day or
two later. "They carry thrift to the pitch of avarice and vice. Zola's
'La Terre' is not without foundation on fact."
And excellent as is the principle of forethought, invaluable as is the
habit of laying by for a rainy day, I have at last come to the
conclusion that of the two national weaknesses, French avarice and
English lavishness and love of spending, the latter is more in
accordance with progress and the spirit of the age.
In another part of the village we called upon a hale old body of
seventy-seven, who not only lived alone and did everything for herself
indoors but the entire work of a market garden, every inch of the two
and a half acres being, of course, her own. Piled against an inner wall
we saw a dozen or so faggots each weighing, we were told, half a
hundredweight. Will it be believed that this old woman had picked up and
carried from the forest on her back every one of these faggots? The
poor, or rather those who will, are allowed to glean firewood in all the
State forests of France. Let no tourist bestow a few sous upon aged men
and women bearing home such treasure-trove! Quite possibly the dole may
affront some owner of houses and lands.
As we inspected her garden, walls covered with fine grapes, tomatoes and
melons, of splendid quality, to say nothing of vegetables in profusion,
it seemed all the more difficult to reconcile facts so incongruous. Here
was a market gardener on her own account, mistress of all she surveyed,
glad as a gipsy to pick up sticks for winter use. But the burden of her
story was the same:
"Il faut travailler pour ses enfants" (one must work for one's
children), she said.
All these little farm-houses are so many homely fortresses, cottage and
outhouses being securely walled in, a precaution necessary with aged,
moneyed folks living absolutely alone.
A fourth visit was paid to a charming old Philemon and Baucis, the best
possible specimens of their class. The husband lay in bed, ill of an
incurable malady, and spotlessly white were his tasselled nightcap,
shirt and bedclothes. Very clean and neat too was the bedroom opening on
to the little front yard, beneath each window of the one-storeyed
dwelling being a brilliant border of asters. The housewife also was a
picture of tidiness, her cotton gown carefully patched and scrupulously
clean. This worthy couple are said to be worth fifty thousand francs.
The wife, a sexagenarian, does all the work of the house besides waiting
on her good man, to whom she is devoted, but a married son and
daughter-in-law share her duties at night. Here was no touch of
sordidness or suggestion of "La Terre," instead a delightful picture of
rustic dignity and ease. The housewife sold us half a bushel of pears,
these two like their neighbours living by the produce of their small
farm and garden.
I often dropped in upon Madame B---- to whom even morning calls were
On the occasion of my farewell visit she had something pretty to say
about one of my own novels, a French translation of which I had
"I suppose," I said, "that you have some books of your own?"
"Here they are," she said, depositing an armful on the table. "But I
have never read much, and mostly _bibelots_" (trifles.)
Her poor little library consisted of _bibelots_ indeed, a history of
Jeanne d'Arc for children, and half a dozen other works, mostly school
prizes of the kind awarded before school prizes in France were worth the
paper on which they were printed.
There is a certain stimulating quality of elasticity and crispness in
the French atmosphere which our own does not possess. France, moreover,
with its seven climates--for the description of these, see Reclus'
Geography--does undoubtedly offer longer, less broken, spells of hot
summer weather than the United Kingdom. But let me for once and for all
dispel a widespread illusion. The late Lord Lytton, when Ambassador in
Paris, used to say that in the French capital you could procure any
climate you pleased. And experience proves that without budging an inch
you may in France get as many and as rapid climatic changes as anywhere
else under the sun. At noon in mid-May last I was breakfasting with
friends on the Champs Elysees, when my hostess put a match to the fire
and my host jumped up and lighted six wax candles. So dense had become
the heavens that we could no longer see to handle knives and forks!
Hail, wind, darkness and temperature recalled a November squall at home.
Yet the day before I had enjoyed perfect summer weather in the Jardin
d'Acclimitation. Invariableness is no more an attribute of the French
climate than our own. Wherever we go we must take a change of dress, for
all the world as if we were bound for the other side of the Tweed.
My first Sunday at Bourron, on this third visit, was of perfect
stillness, unclouded brilliance and southern languor, heralding, so we
fondly imagined, the very morrow for an excursion.
In the night a strong wind rose up, but as we had ordered a carriage for
Larchant, and as carriages in these parts are not always to be had, as,
moreover, grown folks no more than children like to defer their
pleasure, off we set, two of the party on cycles forming a body guard.
There seemed no likelihood of rain and in the forest we should not feel
For the first mile or two all went well. Far ahead of us our cyclists
bowled gaily along in the forest avenues, all of us being sheltered from
the wind. It was not till we skirted a wide opening that we felt the
full force of the tornado, soon overtaking our blowzed, dishevelled
companions, both on foot and looking miserable enough.
We re-entered the forest, and a little later, emerging from the fragrant
depths of a pine wood, got our first view of Larchant, coming suddenly
upon what looks like a cathedral towering above the plain, at its base a
clustering village, whitewashed brown-roofed houses amid vineyards and
A grandiose view it is, recalling the minaret of Mansourah near Tclemcen
in Algeria, that gigantic monolith apparently carved out of Indian gold
and cleft in two like a pomegranate.
Slowly we wound up towards the village, the wind, or rather hurricane,
gathering in force as we went. It was indeed no easy task to get a
nearer view of the church; more than once we were compelled to beat a
retreat, whilst it seemed really unsafe to linger underneath such a
Imagine the tower of St. Jacques in the Rue de Rivoli split in two, the
upright half standing in a bare wind-swept level, and you have some
faint notion of Larchant. On nearer approach such an impression of
grandeur is by no means diminished. This magnificent parish church, in
part a ruin, in part restored, rather grows upon one upon closer
inspection. Reparation, for want of funds, has stopped short at the
absolutely necessary. The body of the church has been so far restored as
to be fit for use, but its crowning glory, the tower, remains a torso.
The front view suggests no such dilapidation. How long will the shell of
that lofty twelfth century tower remain standing? To my mind it hangs
over the low, one-storeyed houses at its feet, a veritable sword of
Damocles, sooner or later sure to fall with crushing force. The porch
shows much beautiful carving, unfortunately defaced, and the interior
some perfect specimens of pure Gothic arches, the whole whitewashed and
bare as a barn.
Larchant in the middle ages was a famous pilgrimage, and in the days of
Charles IX. a halting stage on the road to Italy. It does not seem to
attract many English pilgrims at the present time. Anyhow tea-making
here seems a wholly unknown art. In a fairly clean inn, however, a
good-natured landlady allowed us to make ourselves at home alike in
kitchen and pantry. One of our party unearthed a time-honoured
tea-pot--we had of course taken the precaution of carrying tea with
us--one by one milk and sugar were forthcoming in what may be called
wholesale fashion, milk-jugs and sugar-basins being apparently articles
of superfluity, and in company of a charming old dog and irresistible
kitten, also of some quiet wayfarers, we five-o'clocked merrily enough.
Our business at Larchant was not wholly archaeological. Buffeted as we
were by the hurricane, we managed to pay a visit in search of eggs and
poultry for the table at home.
If peasant and farming life in France certainly from time to time
reminds us of Zola's "La Terre," we are also reminded of an aspect which
the great novelist ignores. As will be seen from the following sketch
sordidness and aspiration oft times, I am almost tempted to say, and
most often, go hand in hand.
We see one generation addicted to an existence so laborious and material
as to have no counterpart in England; under the same roof growing up
another, sharing all the advantages of social and intellectual progress.
Not far from the church we called upon a family of large and wealthy
farmers, owners of the soil they cultivate, millionaires by comparison
with our neighbours at Bourron.
We arrived in the midst of a busy time, a steam corn thresher plying in
the vast farm-yard. The interior of the big, straggling farm-house we
did not see, but two aged women dressed like poor peasants received us
in the kitchen, a dingy, unswept, uninviting place, as are most
farm-house kitchens in France. These old ladies were respectively
mother-in-law and aunt of the farmer, whose wife, the real mistress of
the house, soon came in. This tall, stout, florid, brawny-armed woman
was evidently what French folks call _une maitresse femme_, a first-rate
housewife and manager; a somewhat awe-inspiring person she looked as she
stood before us, arms akimbo, her short coarse serge skirt showing shoes
well acquainted with stable and neat-house, one dirty blue cotton apron
worn over another equally dirty. Now, my hostess, as I have said, wanted
to purchase some poultry for the table, and here comes in the moral of
my story. Vainly the lady begged and begged again for a couple of
chickens. "But we want them for our Parisians," the three farming women
reiterated, one echoing the other. "Our Parisians, our Parisians," the
words were repeated a dozen times. And as was explained to me
afterwards, "our Parisians," for whom the pick of the poultry yard was
being reserved, were the two sons of the rather forbidding-looking
matron before us, young gentlemen being educated in a Paris Lycee, and
both of them destined for the learned professions!
This side of rural life, this ambition, akin to what we see taking quite
another form among ourselves, Zola does not sufficiently realize.
Shocking indeed were the miserliness and materialism of such existences
but for the element of self-denial, this looking ahead for those to
follow after. How differently, for instance, the farm-house and its
group must have appeared, but for the evident pride and hopes centred in
_nos Parisiens_, who knows?--perhaps youths destined to attain the first
rank in official or political callings!
The farther door of the smoke-dried kitchen opened on to the farm-yard,
around which were stables and neat-houses. In the latter the mistress of
the house proudly drew our attention to a beautiful blue cow, grey in
our ignorance we had called it, one of a score or more of superb kine
all now reclining on their haunches before being turned out to pasture.
In front, cocks and hens disported themselves on a dunghill, whilst
beyond, the steam corn thresher was at work, every hand being called
into requisition. No need here for particulars and figures. The
superabundant wealth, so carefully husbanded for the two youths in
Paris, was self-evident.
The tornado, with threatening showers and the sight of a huge tree just
uprooted by the road side, necessitated the shortest possible cut home.
In fair weather a prolongation of our drive would have given us a sight
of some famous rocks of this rocky forest. But we carried home memories
enough for one day.
This ancient village, reached by the forest, is one of the most
picturesque of the many picturesque places hereabouts. Quitting a
stretch of pinewood we traverse flat cultivated land, gradually winding
up towards a long straggling village surmounted by a lofty church tower
of grey stone. On either side of this street are enclosed farm-houses,
the interiors being as pictorial as can be imagined. Untidy as are most
French homesteads, for peasant farmers pay little court to the Graces,
there is always a bit of flower garden. Sometimes this flower garden is
aerial, a bower of roses on the roof sometimes amid the incongruous
surroundings of pig styes or manure heaps. This region is a petunia
land; wherever we go we find a veritable blaze of petunia blossoms, pale
mauve, deepest rose, purple and white massed together without order or
view to effect. In one of the little fortresses--for so these antique
farmhouses may be called--we saw a rustic piazza, pillars and roof of
rude unhewn stone blazing with petunias, no attempt whatever at making
the structure whole, symmetrical or graceful to the eye. It seems as if
these homely though rich farmers, or rather farmers' wives, could not do
without flowers, above the street jutting many aerial gardens, the only
touch of beauty in the work-a-day picture. These interiors would supply
artists with the most captivating subjects. The women, their skins brown
and wrinkled as ripe, shelled walnuts, their head-dress a blue and white
kerchief neatly folded and knotted, the expression of their faces shrewd
and kindly, all contribute to the charm of the scene.
Here as elsewhere the young women and girls affect a little fashion and
finery on Sundays.
We should not know unless we were told that Recloses was one of the
richest villages in these parts. On this Sunday, September 1st, 1901, in
one place a steam thresher was at work, although for the most part folks
seemed to be taking their ease in their holiday garb. Perhaps the
difficulty of procuring the machine accounted for the fact of seeing it
on a Sunday.
One of the farm-yards showed a charming menagerie of poultry and the
prettiest rabbits in the world, all disporting themselves in most
amicable fashion. Here, as elsewhere, when we stopped to admire, the
housewife came out, pleased to interchange a few words with us. The
sight of Recloses is not, however, its long line of little walled-in
farm-houses, but the curious rocky platform at the end of the village,
perforated with holes always full of water, and the stupendous view
thence obtained--an ocean of sombre green unrelieved by a single sail.
Already the vast panorama of forest shows signs of autumn, light touches
of yellow relieving the depths of solemn green. On such a day of varied
cloudland the perspective must be quite different, and perhaps even more
beautiful than under a burning cloudless sky, no soft gradations between
the greens and the blues. The little pools or perforations breaking the
surface of the broad platform, acres of rocks, are, I believe,
unexplained phenomena. In the driest season these openings contain
water, presumably forced upwards from hidden springs. The pools, just
now covered with green slime, curiously spot the grey surface of the
If, leaving the world of forest to our right, we continue our journey in
the direction of Chapelle la Reine, we overlook a vast plain the
population of which is very different from that of the smiling fertile
prosperous valley of the Loing. This plain, extending to Etampes and
Pithiviers, might, I am told, possibly have suggested to Zola some
scenes and characters of "La Terre." A French friend of mine, well
acquainted with these parts, tells me that at any rate there, if
anywhere, the great novelist might have found suggestions for such a
work. The soil is arid, the cultivation is primitive in the extreme and
the people are rough and uncouth. The other day an English resident at
Marlotte, when cycling among these villages of the plain inquired his
way of a countryman.
"You are not a Frenchman?" quoth the latter before giving the desired
"No I am not" was the reply.
"You are not an American?"
"No, I am an Englishman."
"Ah!" was the answer, "I smelt you out sure enough" (_Je vous ai bien
senti_). Whereupon he proceeded to put the wayfarer on his right road.
As a rule French peasants are exceedingly courteous to strangers, but
these good people of the plain seldom come in contact with the tourist
world, their country not being sufficiently picturesque even to attract
The curious thirteenth-century church of Recloses had long been an art
pilgrimage. It contains, or at least should contain, some of the most
wonderful wood carvings in France; figures and groups of figures highly
realistic in the best sense of the word. These sculptures,
unfortunately, we were not able to inspect a second time; exhibited in
the Paris Exhibition they had not yet been replaced.
It is a beautiful drive from Recloses to Bourron by the Croix de Saint
Herem. A little way out of the village we came upon a pretty scene,
people, in family groups, playing croquet under the trees. Dancing also
goes on in summer as in the olden time. It was curious as we drove along
to note the behaviour of my friend's dog: it never for a moment closed
its eyes, and yet there was nothing to look at but avenue after avenue
of trees. What could the little animal find so fascinating in the
somewhat monotonous sight? A friend at home assures me that a pet of her
own enjoyed drives from purely snobbish motives; his great gratification
arising from the sense of superiority over fellow dogs compelled to
trudge on foot. But in these woodland solitudes there was no room for
such a sentiment, not a dog being visible, only now and then a cyclist
There is no more splendid cycling ground in the world than this forest
"This guest of summer,
The temple-haunting martlet, does approve
By his loved mansionry that the heaven's breath
Smells wooingly here: no jutty frieze, buttress,
Nor coigne of vantage, but this bird hath made
His pendent bed, and procreant cradle: Where they
Most breed and haunt, I have observed the air
About this time at Bourron the village street was alive with swallows
preparing, I presume, for departure southwards. A beautiful sight it was
to see these winged congregations evidently concerting their future
Another feature to be mentioned is the number of large handsome moths
frequenting these regions. One beautiful creature as large as a swallow
used to fly into our dining room every evening for warmth; fastening
itself to the wall it would there remain undisturbed until the morning.
I finish these reminiscences of Bourron by the following citation from
Balzac's "Ursule Mirouet":--
"On entering Nemours at five o'clock in the morning, Ursule woke up
feeling quite ashamed of her untidiness, and of encountering Savinien's
look of admiration. During the time that the diligence took to come from
Bouron (_sic_), where it stopped a few minutes, the young man had
observed Ursule. He had noted the candour of her mind, the beauty of her
person, the whiteness of her complexion, the delicacy of her features,
the charm of the voice which had uttered the short and expressive
sentence, in which the poor child said everything, while wishing to say
nothing. In short I do not know what presentiment made him see in Ursule
the woman whom the doctor had depicted, framed in gold, with these magic
words:--'Seven to eight hundred thousand francs!'"
Holiday tourists in these parts cannot do better than put this
love-story in their pockets.
"Who knows Nemours," wrote Balzac, "knows that nature there is as
beautiful as art," and again he dwells upon the charm of the sleepy
little town memorialized in "Ursule Mirouet."
The delicious valley of Loing indeed fascinated Balzac almost as much as
his beloved Touraine.
As his recently published letters to Madame Hanska have shown us,
several of his greatest novels were written in this neighbourhood,
whilst in the one named above we have a setting as striking as that of
"Eugenie Grandet" or "Beatrix." A ten minutes' railway journey brings us
to Nemours, one of the few French towns, by the way, in which Arthur
Young lost his temper. Here is his own account of the incident:--
"Sleep at Nemours, where we met with an innkeeper who exceeded in
knavery all we had met with, either in France or Italy: for supper, we
had a _soupe maigre_, a partridge and a chicken roasted, a plate of
celery, a small cauliflower, two bottles of poor _vin du Pays_, and a
dessert of two biscuits and four apples: here is the bill:--Potage 1
liv. 10f.--Perdrix 2 liv. 10f.--Poulet 2 liv.--Celeri 1 liv.
4f.--Choufleur 2 liv.--Pain et dessert 2 liv.--Feu et appartement 6
liv.--Total 19 liv. 8f. Against so impudent an extortion we remonstrated
severely but in vain. We then insisted on his signing the bill, which,
after many evasions, he did, _a l'etoile, Foulliare_. But having been
carried to the inn, not as the star, but the _ecu de France_, we
suspected some deceit: and going out to examine the premises, we found
the sign to be really the _ecu_, and learned on enquiry that his own
name was Roux, instead of _Foulliare_: he was not prepared for this
detection, or for the execration we poured on such infamous conduct; but
he ran away in an instant and hid himself till we were gone. In justice
to the world, however, such a fellow ought to be marked out."
I confess I do not myself find such charges excessive. From a very
different motive, Nemours put me as much out of temper as it had done my
great predecessor a hundred years before. Will it be believed that a
town memorialized by the great, perhaps _the_ greatest, French novelist,
could not produce its title of honour, in other words a copy of "Ursule
This town of 4,000 and odd souls and chef-lieu of department does not
possess a bookseller's shop. We did indeed see in a stationer's window
one or two penny books, among these an abridged translation of "Uncle
Tom's Cabin." But a friendly wine merchant, who seemed to take my
reproaches very much to heart, assured us that in the municipal library
all Balzac's works were to be found, besides many valuable books dealing
with local history.
Cold comfort this for tourists who want to buy a copy of the Nemours
story! As we stroll about the grass-grown streets, we feel that
railways, telephones and the rest have very little changed Nemours since
Balzac's descriptions, written three-quarters of a century ago.
The sweet and pastoral surroundings of the place are in strong contrast
with the sordid next-of-kin peopling the pages of his romance. Beyond
the fine old church of rich grey stone, you obtain as enchanting a view
as the valley of the Loing can show, a broad, crystal-clear river
winding amid picturesque architecture, richest and most varied foliage,
ash and weeping willow mingling with deeper-hued beech and alder. It is
difficult, almost impossible, to describe the charm of this riverside
scenery. In one passage of his novel, Balzac compares the view to the
scenery of an opera, and in very truth every feature forms a whole so
harmonious as to suggest artistic arrangement.
Nature and accident have effected the happiest possible combination of
wood, water and building stone. Nothing is here to mar the complete
picture. Grandly the cathedral-like church and fine old chateau stand
out to-day against the brilliant sky, soft grey stone and dark brown
making subdued harmonies. Formerly Nemours was surrounded by woods,
hence its name. People are said to attain here a very great age, life
being tranquil and the nature of the people somewhat lethargic.
Amongst the more energetic inhabitants are a lady dentist and her
sister, who between them do a first rate business.
French peasants never dream of indulging in false teeth; such an idea
would never enter the head of even the richest. But an aching tooth
interferes with the labours of the farm, and must be got rid of at any
cost. This young lady _chirurgien et dentiste_, such is the name
figuring on her door plate, is not only most expert in using the
forceps, but is attractive and pretty.
Her charges are two francs for a visit or operation; in partnership with
her is a sister who does the accounts, and as nuns and sisters of
charity unprovided with certificates are no longer allowed to draw
teeth, act as midwives and cut off limbs, country doctors and dentists
of either sex have now a fair chance.
No town in this part of France suffered more during the German invasion.
The municipal authorities had at first decided upon making a bold stand,
thus endeavouring to check the enemy's advance on Paris. Differences of
opinion arose, prudential counsels prevailed, and it was through a
mistaken order that a Prussian detachment was attacked near the town.
The consequences were appalling. The station was burned to the ground,
enormous contributions in money and material were exacted from the town,
some of the authorities were made to travel on the railways with the
invaders, and others were carried off to remote fortresses of
Brandenburg and there kept as prisoners for nine months.
The account of all these incidents, written by a victim, may be
consulted in a volume of the town library.
If people frequently attain the age of a hundred in Nemours, as I was
assured, it is rather due to placid temperament than to intellectual
torpor. The town possesses learned societies, and a member of its
archaeological association has published a book of great local interest
and value, viz:--"Nemours, Temps Geologiques, Temps Prehistoriques,
Temps Historiques, par E. Doigneau, Membre de la Societe Archeologique
de Seine-et-Marne, Ancien Vice President de la section de Fontainebleau,
Strange to say, although this neighbourhood has offered a rich field for
prehistoric research, Nemours as yet possesses no museum, I do verily
believe the first French town of any size I have ever found in France
without one at least in embryo. For the cyclist the run from Bourron to
Nemours is delightful, on the hottest day in the year spinning along
broad well-wooded roads, with lovely perspectives from time to time.
From Bourron, in September, 1900, I journeyed with a friend to La
Charite, a little town four hours off.
It is ever with feelings of pleasurable anticipation that I approach any
French town for the first time. The number of these, alas! now being
few, I have of late years been compelled to restrain curiosity, leaving
one or two dreamed-of spots for the future, saying with Wordsworth:--
"Should life be dull and spirits low,
'Twill soothe us in our sorrow,
That earth has something yet to show,
The bonny holms of Yarrow."
La Charite, picturesque of the picturesque--according to French accounts,
English, we have none--for many years had been a Yarrow to me, a reserve
of delight, held back from sheer Epicureanism.
As, on the 12th of September, the cumbersome old omnibus rattled over
the unpaved streets, both to myself and fellow traveller came a feeling
of disenchantment. We had apparently reached one more of those sleepy
little _chefs-lieux_ familiar to both, places of interest certainly, the
sleepiest having some architectural gem or artistic treasure. But here
was surely no Yarrow!
A few minutes later we discovered our error. Hardly had we reached our
rooms in the more than old-fashioned Hotel du Grand Monarque, than from
a side window, we caught sight of the Loire; so near, indeed, lay the
bright, blue river, that we could almost have thrown pebbles into its
clear depths; quitting the hotel, half a dozen steps, no more were
needed, an enchanting scene burst upon the view.
Most beautiful is the site of La Charite, built terrace-wise, not on the
skirts but on the very hem of the Loire, here no revolutionary torrent,
sweeping away whole villages, leaving only church steeples visible above
the engulfing waters, as I had once seen it at Nantes, but a broad,
smooth, crystal expanse of sky-blue. Over against the handsome stone
bridge to-day having its double in the limpid water, we see a little
islanded hamlet crowned with picturesque church tower; and, placing
ourselves midway between the town and its suburban twin, obtain vast and
lovely perspectives. Westward, gradually purpling as evening wears on,
rises the magnificent height of Sancerre, below, amid low banks bordered
with poplar, flowing the Loire. Eastward, looking towards Nevers, our
eyes rest on the same broad sheet of blue; before us, straight as an
arrow, stretches the French road of a pattern we know so well, an
apparently interminable avenue of plane or poplar trees. The river is
low at this season, and the velvety brown sands recall the sea-shore
when the tide is out. Exquisite, at such an hour are the reflections,
every object having its mirrored self in the transparent waves, the
lights and shadows of twilight making lovely effects.
As is the case with Venice, La Charite should be reached by river, and a
pity it seems that little steamers do not ply between all the principal
towns on the Loire. How enchanting, like the immortal Vert-Vert, of
Gresset's poem, to travel from Nevers to the river's mouth!
If I had headed this paper merely with the words "La Charite," I should
surely be supposed to treat of some charitable institution in France, or
of charity as worked out in the abstract, for this first of Christian
virtues has given the place its name, presumably perpetuating the
charitableness of its abbatial founders. Just upon two thousand years
ago, some pious monks of the order of Cluny settled here, calling their
foundation La Charite. Gradually a town grew around the abbey walls, and
what better name for any than this? So La Charite it was in early feudal
times, and La Charite it remains in our own.
The place itself is as antiquated and behindhand as any I have seen in
France, which is saying a good deal. A French gentleman, native of these
parts, told me that in his grandfather's time our Hotel du Grand
Monarque enjoyed a fine reputation. In many respects it deserves the
same still, excellent beds, good cooking, quietude and low prices not
being so common as they might be in French provincial inns. The house,
too, is curious, what with its spiral stone staircases, little passages
leading to one room here, to another there--as if in former days
travellers objected to walls that adjoined those of other people--and
unaccountable levels, it is impossible to understand whether you were on
the first floor or the second floor, house-top, or basement. Our
bedrooms, for instance, reached by one of the spiral stone staircases
just named never used by myself without apprehension, landed us on the
edge of a poultry yard; I suppose a wide bit of roof had been converted
into this use, but it was quite impossible to make out any architectural
plan. These rooms adjoining this _basse-cour_, hens and chicks would
enter unceremoniously and pick up the crumbs we threw to them.
Fastidious tourists might resent so primitive a state of things, the
hotel, I should say, remaining exactly what it was under the Ancien
Regime. The beauty and interest of various kinds around, more than make
up for small drawbacks. Here the archaeologist will not grudge several
days. Ruined as it is, the ancient abbey may be reconstructed in the
mind's eye by the help of what we see before us. The fragments of
crumbling wall, the noble tower and portal, the delicately sculptured
pillars, cornices, and arches, enable us to build up the whole, just as
Cuvier made out an entire skeleton from the examination of a single
bone. These grand architectural fragments have not been neglected by the
learned. Unfortunately, and exceptionally, La Charite possesses neither
public library nor museum, but at Nevers the traveller would surely find
a copy of Prosper Merimee's "Notes Archeologiques" in which is a minute
account of these.
Alike without and within the ruins show a medley of styles and richest
The superb north-west tower, that forms so striking an object from the
river, is said to be in the Burgundian style; rather should we put it
after a Burgundian style, so varied and heterogeneous are the churches
coming under this category. Again, the guide books inform us that the
open space between this tower and the church was occupied by the
narthex, a vast outer portico of ancient Burgundian churches used for
the reception of penitents, catechumens, and strangers. All interested
in ecclesiastical architecture should visit the abbey church of Vezelay,
which possesses a magnificent narthex of two storeys, restored by the
late Viollet le Duc. Vezelay, by the way, may be easily reached from La
Next to the elaborate sculptures of this grand tower, will be noted the
superb colour of the building stone, carved out of deep-hued gold it
looks under the burning blue sky. And of a piece are arch, portico and
column, one and all helping us to reconstruct the once mighty abbey,
home of a brotherhood so powerful as to necessitate disciplinary
measures on the part of the Pope.
The interior of the church shows the same elaborateness of detail, and
the same mixture of styles, the Romanesque-Burgundian predominating, so,
at least, affirm authorities.
The idler and lover of the picturesque will not find time hang heavy on
his hands here. Very sweet are the riverside views, no matter on which
side we obtain them, and the quaintest little staircases of streets run
from base to summit of the pyramidally-built town. A climb of a quarter
of an hour takes us to an admirable coign of vantage just above the
abbey church, and commanding a view of Sancerre and the river. That
little town, so splendidly placed, is celebrated for its eight months'
defence as a Huguenot stronghold.
La Charite, with most mediaeval towns, was fortified, one old city gate
To-day, as when that charming writer, Emile Montegut visited the place
more than a generation ago, the townspeople ply their crafts and
domestic callings abroad. In fine weather, no work that can possibly be
done in the open air is done within four walls. Another curious feature
of these engaging old streets, is the number of blacksmiths' shops. It
would seem as if all the horses, mules, and donkeys of the Nievre were
brought hither to be shod, the smithy fires keeping up a perpetual
A third and still more noteworthy point is the infrequency--absence, I
am inclined to say--of cabarets. Soberest of the sober, orderliest of
the orderly, appear these good folks of La Charite, les Caritates as
they are called, nor, apparently, has tradition demoralised them. One
might expect that a town dedicated to the virtue of almsgiving would
abound in beggars. Not one did we see.
If an ugly name could kill a place, Pougues must surely have been ruined
as a health resort centuries ago. Coming, too, after that soothing,
harmoniously named La Charite, could any configuration of letters grate
more harshly on the ear? Truth to tell, my travelling companion and
myself had a friendly little altercation about Pougues. It seemed
impossible to believe pleasant things of a town so labelled. But the
reputation of Pougues dates from Hercules and Julius Caesar, both
heroes, it is said, having had recourse to its mineral springs! Coming
from legend to history, we find that Pougues, or, at least, the waters
of Pougues, were patronised by the least objectionable son of Catherine
de Medicis, Henri II. of France and runaway King of Poland. Imputing his
disorders to sorcery, he was thus reassured by a sensible physician
named Pidoux: "Sire, the malady from which you suffer is due to no
witchcraft. Lead a quiet life for ten weeks, and drink the water of
Pougues." The best king France ever had, namely, the gay Gascon, and
after him Louis XIII., by no means one of the worst, had recourse to
Pougues waters; also that arch-voluptuary and arch-despot, the Sun-King,
who imagined that even syntax and prosody must bow to his
will. [Footnote: One day the young king ordered his carriage, saying,
"_mon_ carrosse," instead of "_ma_ carrosse," the French word being
derived from the Italian feminine, _carrozza_. On being gently
corrected, the king flew into a passion, declaring that masculine he had
called it, and masculine it should remain, which it has done to this
day, so the story runs. Let the Republic look to it!] And Madame de
Sevigne--for whom, however, I have scant love, for did she not hail the
revocation of the Edict of Nantes?--Madame de Sevigne honoured Pougues
with an epigram.
A second Purgatory she styled the douches, and, doubtless, in those
non-washing days, a second Purgatory it would have been to most folks.
To Pougues, nevertheless, we went, and if these notes induce the more
enterprising of my countrypeople to do the same next summer, they are
not likely to repent of the experiment. Never, indeed, was a little Eden
of coolness, freshness, and greenery more abominably used by its
sponsors, whilst the name of so many French townlings are a poem in
From a view of sky blue waters and smooth brown sands we were
transported to a world of emerald green verdure and richest foliage,
interpenetrated with golden light. On this 14th of September the warmth
and dazzlingness of mid-summer still reigned at Pougues; and the scenery
in which we suddenly found ourselves, bosquets, dells, and glades, with
all the charm but without the savageness of the forest, recalled the
loveliest lines of the laziest poet:--
"Was naught around but images of rest,
And flowery beds, that slumberous influence kest,
Sleep-soothing groves and quiet lawns between,
From poppies breathed; and beds of pleasant green."
[Footnote 1: Cast]
A drive of a few minutes had landed us in the heart of this little
Paradise, baths and Casino standing in the midst of park-like grounds.
Apparently Pougues, that is to say, the Pougues-les-Eaux of later days,
has been cut out of natural woodland, the Casino gardens and its
surroundings being rich in forest trees of superb growth and great
variety. The wealth of foliage gives this new fashionable little
watering-place an enticingly rural appearance, nor is the attraction of
water wholly wanting. To quote once more a most quotable, if little
"Meantime, unnumbered glittering streamlets played,
And hurled everywhere their water's sheen,
That, as they bickered through the sunny glade,
Though restless still, themselves a lulling murmur made."
A pretty little lake, animated with swans, varies the woodland scenery,
and tropical birds in an aviary lend brilliant bits of colour. The usual
accessories of a health resort are, of course, here--reading room,
concert hall, theatre, and other attractions, rapidly turning the place
into a lesser Vichy. The number and magnificence of the hotels, the
villas and _cottages_, that have sprung up on every side, bespeak the
popularity of Pougues-les-Eaux, as it is now styled, the surname adding
more dignity than harmoniousness. One advantage Pougues possesses over
its rivals, is position. At Aix-les-Bains, Plombieres, Salins, and how
many other inland spas, you are literally wedged in between shelving
hills. If you want to enjoy wide horizons, and anything like a breeze,
you must get well outside the town. Never in hot, dusty, crowded cities
have I felt so half-suffocated as at the two first named places.
Pougues, on the contrary, lies in a broad expanse of beautifully varied
woodland and champaign, no more appropriate site conceivable for the now
popular air-cure. "Pougues-les-Eaux, Cure d'Eau and Cure d'Air," is now
its proud title, folks flocking hither, not only to imbibe its
delicious, ice-cold, sparkling waters, but to drink in its highly
nourishing air. The iron-gaseous waters resemble in properties those of
Spa and Vichy. From one to five tumblers are ordered a day, according to
the condition of the drinker, a little stroll between each dose being
advisable. With regard to the air-cure, visitors are reminded that at
Pougues they find the four kinds of walking exercise recommended by a
German specialist, namely, that on quite level ground; secondly, a very
gradual climb; thirdly, a somewhat steeper bit of up-hill; and,
fourthly, the really arduous ascent of Mont Givre. In order to entice
health-seekers, all kinds of gratifications await them on the summit,
restaurant, dairy, reading room, tennis court, and croquet ground, to
say nothing of a panorama almost unrivalled in eastern France. We have,
indeed, climbed the Eiffel Tower, in other words, are on a level with
that final stage from which floats the Tricolour. Looking east we behold
the sombre Morvan and Nevers rising above the Loire, whilst westward,
beyond the plain and the Loire, may be descried the cathedral of
Bourges. How many regions visited and revisited by myself now lie before
my eyes as on a map--the Berri, Georges Sand's country, the little
Celtic kingdom of the Morvan, on the borders of which, for so many
years, that charming writer, Philip Gilbert Hamerton, made his home; the
Nivernais, with its souvenirs of Vert-Vert and Mazarin, or, rather,
Mazarin and Vert-Vert, the Department of the Allier made from the
ancient province of the Bourbonnais.
A wanderer in France should never be without his Arthur Young. That
"wise and honest traveller," of course, had been before us, but
travelling in a contrary direction. "From the hill that descends to
Pougues," he wrote on his way from Nevers to Fontainebleau, in 1790, "is
an extensive view to the north, and after Pouilly a (_sic_) fine
scenery, with the Loire doubling through it." But the great farmer made
this journey in mid-winter, thus missing its charm. And Arthur Young was
ever too intent upon crops and roots to notice wild flowers. Had he
traversed this region earlier in the year, he might have missed an
exquisite feature, namely, the sweeps of autumn crocus. Just now the
rich pastures around Pougues, as well as suburban lawns and wayside
spaces, were tinted with delicate mauve, the ground being literally
carpeted with these flowers. It was as if the lightest possible veil of
pale purple covered the turf, the same profusion being visible on every
One final word about this sweet and most unmusically named place. On no
occasion and nowhere have I been received with more cordiality than at
dear little Pougues, a place I was told there utterly ignored by my
country people. I do honestly believe, indeed, that myself and fellow
traveller were the first English folk to wander about those delicious
gardens, and taste the incomparable waters, cool, sparkling,
invigorating as those of Spa.
One enterprising proprietor of an excellent hotel was so anxious to
secure an English _clientele_, the best _clientele_ in the world, so
hotel keepers aver, that she offered me a handsome percentage on any
visitors I would send her. In the most delicate manner I could command,
I gave her to understand that my inquiries about Pougues were not made
from a business point of view, but that I should certainly proclaim its
many attractions on the house-tops.
NEVERS AND MOULINS.
I found the well-remembered Hotel de France much as I had left it, just
upon twenty years before, every whit as quiet, comfortable, and moderate
in price, indeed, one of the best provincial hotels of France. The dear
old woman then employed as waitress, had, of course, long since gone to
her rest, and the landlord and landlady were new to me. But, the
traditions of an excellent house were evidently kept up, accommodation,
meanwhile, having been greatly enlarged.
A place is like a book; if worth knowing at all, to be returned to again
and again. After the first brief visit so many years ago, I wrote, "I
envy the traveller who for the first time stands on the bridge of
Nevers." And more imposing, more exhilarating still, seemed the view
from the same spot now; under the brilliant sky, in the clear
atmosphere, every feature standing out as in a mosaic proudly dominating
all, the Cathedral, with its mass of sombre architecture; stretching
wide to right and left, the gay, prosperous-looking city; white villas
rising one above the other, hanging gardens and terraced lawns, making
greenery and verdure in mid-air. On the occasion of my first visit in
August, 1881, the Loire was so low as to appear a mere thread of palest
blue amid white sands; at the time I now write of, broad and beautiful
it flowed beneath the noble bridge, a deep twilight sky reflected in its
How well I remember the first sight of this scene years ago! Then it was
early morning of market day, and, pouring in from the country, I had met
crowds of peasants with their products, the men in blue blouses, the
women in neat white coiffes, some bearing huge baskets on their heads,
others drawing heavily laden barrows, driving donkey-carts, the piled-up
fruit and vegetables making a blaze of colour. For three sous I recorded
the purchase of more wild strawberries, peaches, and greengages than I
knew what to do with, each grower doing business on his own account, no
middleman to share his profits; choicest fruit and vegetables to be had
almost for the asking. On this lovely Sunday evening plenty of peasant
folk were about, the men fishing in the Loire, the women minding their
children under the trees. But I noted here, as elsewhere, a gradual
disappearance of the blue blouse and white coiffe. Broadcloth and
bonnets are fast superseding the homely, picturesque dress of former
The aerial residences just mentioned are characteristic of riverside
Nevers. Craning our necks as we strolled to and fro, we remarked how
much life in such altitudes must resemble that of a balloon, folks being
thus lifted above the hubbub, malodours, and microbes of the human
bee-hive below. For my own part I prefer a turnpike level, despite the
engaging aspect of those rose-girt verandahs, bowers, and lawns on a
level with the cathedral tower.
"Nevers makes a fine appearance, rising proudly from the Loire," wrote
Arthur Young, "but on the first entrance it is like a thousand other
But the indefatigable apostle of the turnip had no time for archaeology
on his great tour, or he would have discovered that Nevers possesses
more than one architectural gem of the first water. The cathedral
certainly, alike without and within, must take rank after those of
Chartres, Le Mans, Reims, and how many others! but the exquisite little
church of St. Etienne and the Ducal Palace, are both perfect in their
way, and will enchant all lovers of harmony and proportion. The first,
another specimen of so-called Romanesque-Burgundian, has to be looked
for, standing as it does in a kind of _cul de sac_; the second occupies
a conspicuous site, forms, indeed, the centre-piece and crowning
ornament of the town. Daintiest of the dainty, this fairy-like Italian
palace in the heart of France, reminds us that once upon a time Nevers
was the seat of Italian dukes, the last of whom was a nephew of Mazarin.
The great Cardinal, "whose heart was more French than his speech," and
who served France so well, despite his nationality and his nepotism,
having purchased the Nivernais of a Gonzague, finally incorporated it
into the French crown in 1659.
To this day, Nevers remains true to its Italian traditions. Go into the
tiniest suburban street, enter the poorest little general shop, and you
are reminded of the art that made the city famous hundreds of years ago,
an art introduced by a Duke of Mantua, relation of Catherine de Medicis.
It was in the sixteenth century, that this feudal lord of the Nivernais
summoned Italian potters hither, among these a native of Faenza. Under
his direction a manufactory of faience was established, the ware
resembling that of his native city, scriptural and allegorical subjects
traced in manganese. The unrivalled blue glaze of Nevers is of later
date. Just as Rouen potters were celebrated for their reds, the
Nivernais surpassed them in blues. No French or foreign potters ever
achieved an azure of equal depth and purity.
The golden age of Nevers majolica belongs to that early period, but the
highly ornamented faience now produced in its ateliers, shows taste and
finish, and in the town itself may be found charming things as cheap as,
if not cheaper than, our commonest earthenware.
As I write, I have before me some purchases made at a small general
dealer's, a plate, and two small amphora-shaped vases, costing a few
sous each. The colouring of this cheap pottery is very harmonious, and
the glaze remarkable for its brilliance. The shopwoman, with whom we had
a pleasant chat, did not seem astonished at our admiration for her
"I sell lots of such things as you have just bought, to folks like you"
_(de votre genre)_, she said, "strangers who like to carry away a
souvenir of the place, and all my ware comes from the same manufacture."
To-day Nevers thrives upon ornamental majolica. A hundred and ten years
ago it throve upon plates and dishes commemorating the Revolution. In
the upper storey of the Ducal Palace we may read revolutionary annals in
faience, every event being memorialised by a piece of porcelain.
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."
[Illustration: TOMB OF MONTMORENCY, MOULINS.]