CHATEAU AND COUNTRY LIFE IN FRANCE
MARY KING WADDINGTON
Author of Letters Of A Diplomat's Wife and Italian Letters of a Diplomat's Wife
I. CHATEAU LIFE II. COUNTRY VISITS III. THE HOME OF LAFAYETTE IV. WINTER AT THE CHATEAU V. CEREMONIES AND FESTIVALS VI. CHRISTMAS IN THE VALOIS VII. A RACINE CELEBRATION VIII. A CORNER OF NORMANDY IX. A NORMAN TOWN X. NORMAN CHATEAUX XI. BOULOGNE-SUR-MER
A COUNTRY WEDDING A FINE OLD CHATEAU I LOVED TO HEAR HER PLAY BEETHOVEN AND HANDEL THERE WERE ALL SORTS AND KINDS FERDINAND "MERCI, JE VAIS BIEN" LONG PAUSES WHEN NOBODY SEEMED TO HAVE ANYTHING TO SAY THEN HE LIGHTED A FIRE I SUGGESTED THAT THE WHOLE CHASSE SHOULD ADJOURN TO THE CHATEAU SOME RED-COATED, SOME GREEN, ALL WITH BREECHES AND HIGH MUDDY BOOTS PEASANT WOMEN A VISIT AT THE CHATEAU SOLDIERS AT THE CHATEAU THE MAYOR AND A NICE, RED-CHEEKED, WRINKLED OLD WOMAN WERE WAITING FOR US THERE WAS ONE HANDSOME BIT OF OLD LACE ON A WHITE NAPPE FOR THE ALTAR THEY WERE ALL STREAMING UP THE SLIPPERY HILL-SIDE ALL THE CHILDREN IN PROCESSION PASSED THERE WAS ONE POOR OLD WOMAN STILL GAZING SPELL-BOUND L'ETABLISSEMENT, BAGNOLES DE L'ORNE IN DOMFRONT SOME OF THE OLD TOWERS ARE CONVERTED INTO MODERN DWELLINGS CHATEAU DE LASSAY ENTRANCE TO HOTEL OF THE COMTE DE FLORIAN MARKET WOMEN, VALOGNES OLD GATE-WAY, VALOGNES
My first experience of country life in France, about thirty years ago, was in a fine old chateau standing high in pretty, undulating, wooded country close to the forest of Villers-Cotterets, and overlooking the great plains of the Oise—big green fields stretching away to the sky-line, broken occasionally by little clumps of wood, with steeples rising out of the green, marking the villages and hamlets which, at intervals, are scattered over the plains, and in the distance the blue line of the forest. The chateau was a long, perfectly simple, white stone building. When I first saw it, one bright November afternoon, I said to my husband as we drove up, "What a charming old wooden house!" which remark so astonished him that he could hardly explain that it was all stone, and that no big houses (nor small, either) in France were built of wood. I, having been born in a large white wooden house in America, couldn't understand why he was so horrified at my ignorance of French architecture. It was a fine old house, high in the centre, with a lower wing on each side. There were three drawing-rooms, a library, billiard-room, and dining-room on the ground floor. The large drawing-room, where we always sat, ran straight through the house, with glass doors opening out on the lawn on the entrance side and on the other into a long gallery which ran almost the whole length of the house. It was always filled with plants and flowers, open in summer, with awnings to keep out the sun; shut in winter with glass windows, and warmed by one of the three caloriferes of the house. In front of the gallery the lawn sloped down to the wall, which separated the place from the highroad. A belt of fine trees marked the path along the wall and shut out the road completely, except in certain places where an opening had been made for the view.
We were a small party for such a big house: only the proprietor and his wife (old people), my husband and myself. The life was very simple, almost austere. The old people lived in the centre of the chateau, W. and I in one of the wings. It had been all fitted up for us, and was a charming little house. W. had the ground-floor—a bedroom, dressing-room, cabinet de travail, dining-room, and a small room, half reception-room, half library, where he had a large bookcase filled with books, which he gave away as prizes or to school libraries. The choice of the books always interested me. They were principally translations, English and American—Walter Scott, Marryat, Fenimore Cooper, etc. The bedroom and cabinet de travail had glass doors opening on the park. I had the same rooms upstairs, giving one to my maid, for I was nervous at being so far away from anyone. M. and Mme. A. and all the servants were at the other end of the house, and there were no bells in our wing (nor anywhere else in the house except in the dining-room). When I wanted a work-woman who was sewing in the lingerie I had to go up a steep little winding staircase, which connected our wing with the main building, and walk the whole length of the gallery to the lingerie, which was at the extreme end of the other wing. I was very fond of my rooms. The bedroom and sitting-room opened on a balcony with a lovely view over wood and park. When I sat there in the morning with my petit dejeuner—cup of tea and roll—I could see all that went on in the place. First the keeper would appear, a tall, handsome man, rather the northern type, with fair hair and blue eyes, his gun always over his shoulder, sacoche at his side, swinging along with the free, vigorous step of a man accustomed to walk all day. Then Hubert, the coachman, would come for orders, two little fox-terriers always accompanying him, playing and barking, and rolling about on the grass. Then the farmer's wife, driving herself in her gig, and bringing cheese, butter, milk, and sometimes chickens when our bassecour was getting low. A little later another lot would appear, people from the village or canton, wanting to see their deputy and have all manner of grievances redressed. It was curious sometimes to make out, at the end of a long story, told in peasant dialect, with many digressions, what particular service notre depute was expected to render. I was present sometimes at some of the conversations, and was astounded at W.'s patience and comprehension of what was wanted—I never understood half.
 W. here and throughout this volume refers to Mme. Waddington's husband, M. William Waddington.
We generally had our day to ourselves. We rode almost every morning—long, delicious gallops in the woods, the horses going easily and lightly over the grass roads; and the days W. was away and couldn't ride, I used to walk about the park and gardens. The kitchen garden was enormous—almost a park in itself—and in the season I eat pounds of white grapes, which ripened to a fine gold color on the walls in the sun. We rarely saw M. and Mme. A. until twelve-o'clock breakfast.
Sometimes when it was fine we would take a walk with the old people after breakfast, but we generally spent our days apart. M. and Mme. A. were charming people, intelligent, cultivated, reading everything and keeping quite in touch with all the literary and Protestant world, but they had lived for years entirely in the country, seeing few people, and living for each other. The first evenings at the chateau made a great impression upon me. We dined at 7:30, and always sat after dinner in the big drawing-room. There was one lamp on a round table in the middle of the room (all the corners shrouded in darkness). M. and Mme. A. sat in two arm-chairs opposite to each other, Mme. A. with a green shade in front of her. Her eyes were very bad; she could neither read nor work. She had been a beautiful musician, and still played occasionally, by heart, the classics. I loved to hear her play Beethoven and Handel, such a delicate, old-fashioned touch. Music was at once a bond of union. I often sang for her, and she liked everything I sang—Italian stornelli, old-fashioned American negro songs, and even the very light modern French chansonnette, when there was any melody in them. There were two other arm-chairs at the table, destined for W. and me. I will say W. never occupied his. He would sit for about half an hour with M. A. and talk politics or local matters with him, but after that he departed to his own quarters, and I remained with the old people. I felt very strange at first, it was so unlike anything I had ever seen, so different from my home life, where we were a happy, noisy family, always one of the party, generally two, at the piano, everybody laughing, talking, and enjoying life, and always a troop of visitors, cousins innumerable and friends.
It was a curious atmosphere. I can't say dull exactly, for both M. and Mme. A. were clever, and the discussions over books, politics, and life generally, were interesting, but it was serious, no vitality, nothing gay, no power of enjoyment. They had had a great grief in their lives in the loss of an only daughter, which had left permanent traces. They were very kind and did their best to make me feel at home, and after the first few evenings I didn't mind. M. A. had always been in the habit of reading aloud to his wife for an hour every evening after dinner—the paper, an article in one of the reviews, anything she liked. I liked that, too, and as I felt more at home used to discuss everything with M. A. He was quite horrified one evening when I said I didn't like Moliere, didn't believe anybody did (particularly foreigners), unless they had been brought up to it.
 W.'s first wife.
It really rather worried him. He proposed to read aloud part of the principal plays, which he chose very carefully, and ended by making a regular cours de Moliere. He read charmingly, with much spirit, bringing out every touch of humour and fancy, and I was obliged to say I found it most interesting. We read all sorts of things besides Moliere—Lundis de Ste.-Beuve, Chateaubriand, some splendid pages on the French Revolution, Taine, Guizot, Mme. de Stael, Lamartine, etc., and sometimes rather light memoirs of the Regence and the light ladies of the eighteenth century, who apparently mixed up politics, religion, literature, and lovers in the most simple style. These last readings he always prepared beforehand, and I was often surprised at sudden transitions and unfinished conversations which meant that he had suppressed certain passages which he judged too improper for general reading.
He read, one evening, a charming feuilleton of George Sand. It began: "Le Baron avait cause politique toute la soiree," which conversation apparently so exasperated the baronne and a young cousin that they wandered out into the village, which they immediately set by the ears. The cousin was an excellent mimic of all animals' noises. He barked so loud and so viciously that he started all the dogs in the village, who went nearly mad with excitement, and frightened the inhabitants out of their wits. Every window was opened, the cure, the garde champetre, the school-master, all peering out anxiously into the night, and asking what was happening. Was it tramps, or a travelling circus, or a bear escaped from his showman, or perhaps a wolf? I have wished sometimes since, when I have heard various barons talking politics, that I, too, could wander out into the night and seek distraction outside.
It was a serious life in the big chateau. There was no railway anywhere near, and very little traffic on the highroad. After nightfall a mantle of silence seemed to settle on the house and park that absolute silence of great spaces where you almost hear your own heart beat. W. went to Paris occasionally, and usually came back by the last train, getting to the chateau at midnight. I always waited for him upstairs in my little salon, and the silence was so oppressive that the most ordinary noise—a branch blowing across a window-pane, or a piece of charred wood falling on the hearth—sounded like a cannon shot echoing through the long corridor. It was a relief when I heard the trot of his big mare at the top of the hill, quite fifteen minutes before he turned into the park gates. He has often told me how long and still the evenings and nights were during the Franco-Prussian War. He remained at the chateau all through the war with the old people. After Sedan almost the whole Prussian army passed the chateau on their way to Versailles and Paris. The big white house was seen from a long distance, so, as soon as it was dark, all the wooden shutters on the side of the highroad were shut, heavy curtains drawn, and strict orders given to have as little light as possible. He was sitting in his library one evening about dusk, waiting for the man to bring his lamp and shut the shutters, having had a trying day with the peasants, who were all frightened and nervous at the approach of the Germans. He was quite absorbed in rather melancholy reflections when he suddenly felt that someone was looking in at the window (the library was on the ground-floor, with doors and windows opening on the park). He rose quickly, going to the window, as he thought one of the village people wanted to speak to him, and was confronted by a Pickelhaube and a round German face flattened against the window-pane. He opened the window at once, and the man poured forth a torrent of German, which W. fortunately understood. While he was talking W. saw forms, their muskets and helmets showing out quite distinctly in the half-light, crossing the lawn and coming up some of the broad paths. It was a disagreeable sight, which he was destined to see many times.
It was wonderful what exact information the Germans had. They knew all the roads, all the villages and little hamlets, the big chateaux, and most of the small mills and farms. There were still traces of the German occupation when I went to that part of the country; on some of the walls and houses marks in red paint—"4 Pferde, 12 Maenner." They generally wanted food and lodging, which they usually (not always) paid for. Wherever they found horses they took them, but M. A. and W. had sent all theirs away except one saddle-horse, which lived in a stable in the woods near the house. In Normandy, near Rouen, at my brother-in-law's place, they had German officers and soldiers quartered for a long time. They instantly took possession of horses and carriages, and my sister-in-law, toiling up a steep hill, would be passed by her own carriage and horses filled with German officers. However, on the whole, W. said, the Germans, as a victorious invading army, behaved well, the officers always perfectly polite, and keeping their men in good order. They had all sorts and kinds at the chateau. They rarely remained long—used to appear at the gate in small bands of four or five, with a sous-officier, who always asked to see either the proprietor or someone in authority. He said how many men and horses he wanted lodged and fed, and announced the arrival, a little later, of several officers to dine and sleep. They were always received by M. A. or W., and the same conversation took place every time. They were told the servant would show them their rooms, and their dinner would be served at any hour they wished. They replied that they would have the honour of waiting upon the ladies of the family as soon as they had made a little toilette and removed the dust of the route, and that they would be very happy to dine with the family at their habitual hour. They were then told that the ladies didn't receive, and that the family dined alone. They were always annoyed at that answer. As a rule they behaved well, but occasionally there would be some rough specimens among the officers.
W. was coming home one day from his usual round just before nightfall, when he heard loud voices and a great commotion in the hall—M. A. and one or two German officers. The old man very quiet and dignified, the Germans most insulting, with threats of taking him off to prison. W. interfered at once, and learned from the irate officers what was the cause of the quarrel. They had asked for champagne (with the usual idea of foreigners that champagne flowed through all French chateaux), and M. A. had said there was none in the house. They knew better, as some of their men had seen champagne bottles in the cellar. W. said there was certainly a mistake—there was none in the house. They again became most insolent and threatening—said they would take them both to prison. W. suggested, wouldn't it be better to go down the cellar with him? Then they could see for themselves there was none. Accordingly they all adjourned to the cellar and W. saw at once what had misled them—a quantity of bottles of eau de Seidlitz, rather like champagne bottles in shape. They pointed triumphantly to these and asked what he meant by saying there was no champagne, and told their men to carry off the bottles. W. said again it was not champagne—he didn't believe they would like it. They were quite sure they had found a prize, and all took copious draughts of the water—with disastrous results, as they heard afterward from the servants.
Later, during the armistice and Prussian occupation, there were soldiers quartered all around the chateau, and, of course, there were many distressing scenes. All our little village of Louvry, near our farm, had taken itself off to the woods. They were quite safe there, as the Prussians never came into the woods on account of the sharpshooters. W. said their camp was comfortable enough—they had all their household utensils, beds, blankets, donkeys, and goats, and could make fires in the clearing in the middle of the woods. They were mostly women and children, only a very few old men and young boys left. The poor things were terrified by the Germans and Bismarck, of whom they had made themselves an extraordinary picture. "Monsieur sait que Bismarck tue tous les enfants pour qu'il n'y ait plus de Francais." (Monsieur knows that Bismarck kills all the children so that there shall be no more French.) The boys kept W. in a fever. They had got some old guns, and were always hovering about on the edge of the wood, trying to have a shot at a German. He was very uncomfortable himself at one time during the armistice, for he was sending off parties of recruits to join one of the big corps d'armee in the neighbourhood, and they all passed at the chateau to get their money and feuille de route, which was signed by him. He sent them off in small bands of four or five, always through the woods, with a line to various keepers and farmers along the route, who could be trusted, and would help them to get on and find their way. Of course, if anyone of them had been taken with W.'s signature and recommendation on him, the Germans would have made short work of W., which he was quite aware of; so every night for weeks his big black Irish horse Paddy was saddled and tied to a certain tree in one of the narrow alleys of the big park—the branches so thick and low that it was difficult to pass in broad daylight, and at night impossible, except for him who knew every inch of the ground. With five minutes' start, if the alarm had been given, he could have got away into his own woods, where he knew no one would follow him.
Hubert, the old coachman, used often to talk to me about all that troubled time. When the weather was dark and stormy he used to stay himself half the night, starting at every sound, and there are so many sounds in the woods at night, all sorts of wild birds and little animals that one never hears in the daytime—sometimes a rabbit would dart out of a hole and whisk round a corner; sometimes a big buse (sort of eagle) would fly out of a tree with great flapping of wings; occasionally a wild-cat with bright-green eyes would come stealthily along and then make a flying leap over the bushes. His nerves were so unstrung that every noise seemed a danger, and he had visions of Germans lying in ambush in the woods, waiting to pounce upon W. if he should appear. He said Paddy was so wise, seemed to know that he must be perfectly quiet, never kicked nor snorted.
It was impossible to realise those dreadful days when we were riding and walking in the woods, so enchanting in the early summer, with thousands of lilies of the valley and periwinkles growing wild, and a beautiful blue flower, a sort of orchid. We used to turn all the village children into the woods, and they picked enormous bunches of lilies, which stood all over the chateau in china bowls. I loved the wood life at all seasons. I often made the round with W. and his keepers in the autumn when he was preparing a battue. The men were very keen about the game, knew the tracks of all the animals, showing me the long narrow rabbit tracks, running a long distance toward the quarries, which were full of rabbit holes, and the little delicate hoof-marks of the chevreuil (roe-deer) just where he had jumped across the road. The wild boar was easy to trace—little twigs broken, and ferns and leaves quite crushed, where he had passed. The wild boars and stags never stayed very long in our woods—went through merely to the forest of Villers-Cotterets—so it was most important to know the exact moment of their passage, and there was great pride and excitement when one was taken.
Another interesting moment was when the coupe de l'annee was being made. Parts of the woods were cut down regularly every year, certain squares marked off. The first day's work was the marking of the big trees along the alleys which were to remain—a broad red ring around the trunks being very conspicuous. Then came the thinning of the trees, cutting off the top branches, and that was really a curious sight. The men climbed high into the tree, and then hung on to the trunk with iron clamps on their feet, with points which stuck into the bark, and apparently gave them a perfectly secure hold, but it looked dangerous to see them swinging off from the trunk with a sort of axe in their hands, cutting off the branches with a swift, sharp stroke. When they finally attacked the big trees that were to come down it was a much longer affair, and they made slow progress. They knew their work well, the exact moment when the last blow had been given, and they must spring aside to get out of the way when the tree fell with a great crash.
There were usually two or three big battues in November for the neighbouring farmers and small proprietors. The breakfast always took place at the keeper's house. We had arranged one room as a dining-room, and the keeper's wife was a very good cook; her omelette au lard and civet de lievre, classic dishes for a shooting breakfast, were excellent. The repast always ended with a galette aux amandes made by the chef of the chateau. I generally went down to the kennels at the end of the day, and it was a pretty sight when the party emerged from the woods, first the shooters, then a regiment of beaters (men who track the game), the game cart with a donkey bringing up the rear—the big game, chevreuil or boar, at the bottom of the cart, the hares and rabbits hanging from the sides. The sportsmen all came back to the keeper's lodge to have a drink before starting off on their long drive home, and there was always a great discussion over the entries in the game book and the number of pieces each man had killed. It was a very difficult account to make, as every man counted many more rabbits than the trackers had found, so they were obliged to make an average of the game that had been brought in. When all the guests had departed it was killing to hear the old keeper's criticisms.
Another important function was a large breakfast to all the mayors, conseillers d'arrondissement, and rich farmers of W.'s canton. That always took place at the chateau, and Mme. A. and I appeared at table. There were all sorts and kinds—some men in dress coats and white gloves, some very rough specimens in corduroys and thick-nailed shoes, having begun life as garcons de ferme (ploughboys). They were all intelligent, well up in politics, and expressed themselves very well, but I think, on the whole, they were pleased when Mme. A. and I withdrew and they went into the gallery for their coffee and cigars. Mme. A. was extraordinarily easy—talked to them all. They came in exactly the same sort of equipage, a light, high, two-wheeled trap with a hood, except the Mayor of La Ferte, our big town, who came in his victoria.
I went often with W. to some of the big farms to see the sheep-shearing and the dairies, and cheese made. The farmer's wife in France is a very capable, hard-working woman—up early, seeing to everything herself, and ruling all her carters and ploughboys with a heavy hand. Once a week, on market day, she takes her cheeses to the market town, driving herself in her high gig, and several times I have seen some of them coming home with a cow tied to their wagon behind, which they had bought at the market. They were always pleased to see us, delighted to show anything we wanted to see, offered us refreshment—bread and cheese, milk and wine—but never came to see me at the chateau. I made the round of all the chateaux with Mme. A. to make acquaintance with the neighbours. They were all rather far off, but I loved the long drives, almost always through the forest, which was quite beautiful in all seasons, changing like the sea. It was delightful in midsummer, the branches of the big trees almost meeting over our heads, making a perfect shade, and the long, straight, green alleys stretching away before us, as far as we could see. When the wood was a little less thick, the afternoon sun would make long zigzags of light through the trees and trace curious patterns upon the hard white road when we emerged occasionally for a few minutes from the depths of the forest at a cross-road. It was perfectly still, but summer stillness, when one hears the buzzing and fluttering wings of small birds and insects, and is conscious of life around one.
The most beautiful time for the forest is, of course, in the autumn. October and November are lovely months, with the changing foliage, the red and yellow almost as vivid as in America, and always a foreground of moss and brown ferns, which grow very thick and high all through the forest. We used to drive sometimes over a thick carpet of red and yellow leaves, hardly hearing the horses' hoofs or the noise of the wheels, and when we turned our faces homeward toward the sunset there was really a glory of colour in wood and sky. It was always curiously lonely—we rarely met anything or anyone, occasionally a group of wood-cutters or boys exercising dogs and horses from the hunting-stables of Villers-Cotterets. At long intervals we would come to a keeper's lodge, standing quite alone in the middle of the forest, generally near a carrefour where several roads met. There was always a small clearing—garden and kennels, and a perfectly comfortable house, but it must be a lonely life for the women when their husbands are off all day on their rounds. I asked one of them once, a pretty, smiling young woman who always came out when the carriage passed, with three or four children hanging to her skirts, if she was never afraid, being alone with small children and no possibility of help, if any drunkards or evilly disposed men came along. She said no—that tramps and vagabonds never came into the heart of the forest, and always kept clear of the keeper's house, as they never knew where he and his gun might be. She said she had had one awful night with a sick child. She was alone in the house with two other small children, almost babies, while her husband had to walk several miles to get a doctor. The long wait was terrible. I got to know all the keepers' wives on our side of the forest quite well, and it was always a great interest to them when we passed on horseback, so few women rode in that part of France in those days.
Sometimes, when we were in the heart of the forest, a stag with wide-spreading antlers would bound across the road; sometimes a pretty roebuck would come to the edge of the wood and gallop quickly back as we got near.
We had a nice couple at the lodge, an old cavalry soldier who had been for years coachman at the chateau and who had married a Scotchwoman, nurse of one of the children. It was curious to see the tall, gaunt figure of the Scotchwoman, always dressed in a short linsey skirt, loose jacket, and white cap, in the midst of the chattering, excitable women of the village. She looked so unlike them. Our peasant women wear, too, a short; thick skirt, loose jacket, and worsted or knit stockings, but they all wear sabots and on their heads a turban made of bright-coloured cotton; the older women, of course—the girls wear nothing on their heads. They become bent and wrinkled very soon—old women before their time—having worked always in the fields and carried heavy burdens on their backs. The Scotchwoman kept much to herself and rarely left the park. But all the women came to her with their troubles. Nearly always the same story—the men spending their earnings on drink and the poor mothers toiling and striving from dawn till dark to give the little ones enough to eat. She was a strict Protestant, very taciturn and reserved, quite the type of the old Calvinist race who fought so hard against the "Scarlet Woman" when the beautiful and unhappy Mary Stuart was reigning in Scotland and trying to rule her wild subjects. I often went to see her and she would tell me of her first days at the chateau, where everything was so different from what she was accustomed to.
She didn't tell me what Mme. A. did—that she was a very handsome girl and all the men of the establishment fell in love with her. There were dramas of jealousy when she finally decided to marry the coachman. Our chef had learned how to make various English cakes in London, and whenever he made buns or a plum-pudding we used to take some to her. She was a great reader, and we always kept the Times for her, and she and I sympathised with each other—two Anglo-Saxons married in France.
Some of the traditions of the chateau were quite charming. I was sitting in the lodge one day talking to Mme. Antoine, when the baker appeared with what seemed to me an extraordinary provision of bread. I said, "Does he leave the bread for the whole village with you?" "It is not for me, madame, it is for the trainards (tramps) who pass on the road," and she explained that all the chateaux gave a piece of bread and two sous to any wayfarer who asked for food. She cut the bread into good thick slices, and showed me a wooden bowl on the chimney, filled with two-sous pieces. While I was there two men appeared at the big gates, which were always open in the day. They were strong young fellows carrying their bundles, and a sort of pitchfork slung over their shoulders. They looked weary and footsore, their shoes worn in holes. They asked for something to drink and some tobacco, didn't care very much for the water, which was all that Mme. Antoine had to give them, but thanked her civilly enough for the bread and sous.
The park wall was a good vantage-ground to see all (and that wasn't much) that went on on the highroad. The diligence to Meaux passed twice a day, with a fine rattle of old wheels and chains, and cracking of whips. It went down the steep hill well enough, but coming up was quite another affair. All the passengers and the driver got out always, and even then it was difficult to get the heavy, cumbersome vehicle up the hill, in winter particularly, when the roads were muddy and slippery. The driver knew us all well, and was much interested in all that went on at the chateau. He often brought parcels, and occasionally people from the village who wanted to see W.—sometimes a blind piano-tuner who came from Villers-Cotterets. He was very kind to the poor blind man, helped him down most carefully from the diligence, and always brought him through the park gates to the lodge, where he delivered him over to Antoine. It was curious to see the blind man at work. Once he had been led through the rooms, he was quite at home, found the pianos, fussed over the keys and the strings, exactly as if he saw everything. He tuned all the pianos in the country, and was much pleased to put his hands on one that wasn't fifty years old. I had brought down my new Erard.
Sometimes a country wedding passed, and that was always a pretty sight. A marriage is always an important affair in France in every class of life. There are long discussions with all the members of the two families. The cure, the notary, the patron (if the young man is a workman), are all consulted, and there are as many negotiations and agreements in the most humble families as in the grand monde of the Faubourg St. Germain. Almost all French parents give a dot of some kind to their children, and whatever the sum is, either five hundred francs or two thousand, it is always scrupulously paid over to the notary. The wedding-day is a long one. After the religious ceremony in the church, all the wedding party—members of the two families and a certain number of friends—adjourn to the hotel of the little town for a breakfast, which is long and most abundant. Then comes the crowning glory of the day—a country walk along the dusty highroad to some wood or meadow where they can spend the whole afternoon. It is pretty to see the little procession trudging along—the bride in all her wedding garments, white dress, white shoes, wreath, and veil; the groom in a dress coat, top-hat, white cravat and waistcoat, with a white ribbon bow on his sleeve. Almost all the girls and young women are dressed in white or light colours; the mothers and grandmothers (the whole family turns out) in black with flowers in their bonnets. There is usually a fiddler walking ahead making most remarkable sounds on his old cracked instrument, and the younger members of the party take an occasional gallop along the road. They are generally very gay; there is much laughing, and from time to time a burst of song. It is always a mystery to me how the bride keeps her dress and petticoat so clean, but she does, with that extraordinary knack all Frenchwomen seem to have of holding up their skirts. They passed often under the wall of the chateau, for a favourite resting-place was in our woods at the entrance of the allee verte, where it widens out a little; the moss makes a beautiful soft carpet, and the big trees give perfect shade. We heard sounds of merriment one day when we were passing and we stopped to look on, from behind the bushes, where we couldn't be seen. There was quite a party assembled. The fiddler was playing some sort of country-dance and all the company, except the very old people, were dancing and singing, some of the men indulging in most wonderful steps and capers. The children were playing and running under the trees. One stout man was asleep, stretched out full length on the side of the road. I fancy his piquette, as they call the ordinary white wine of the country, had been too much for him. The bride and groom were strolling about a little apart from the others, quite happy and lover-like, his arm around her waist, she blushing and giggling.
The gendarmes passed also very regularly. They always stopped and talked, had a drink with Antoine, and gave all the local news—how many braconniers (poachers) had been caught, how long they were to stay in prison, how some of the farmers' sheep had disappeared, no one knew how exactly—there were no more robbers. One day two of them passed, dragging a man between them who had evidently been struggling and fighting. His blouse was torn, and there was a great gash on his face. We were wildly excited, of course. They told us he was an old sinner, a poacher who had been in prison various times, but these last days, not contented with setting traps for the rabbits, he had set fire to some of the hay-stacks, and they had been hunting for him for some time. He looked a rough customer, had an ugly scowl on his face. One of the little hamlets near the chateau, on the canal, was a perfect nest of poachers, and I had continual struggles with the keepers when I gave clothes or blankets to the women and children. They said some of the women were as bad as the men, and that I ought not to encourage them to come up to the house and beg for food and clothing; that they sold all the little jackets and petticoats we gave them to the canal hands (also a bad lot) for brandy. I believe it was true in some cases, but in the middle of winter, with snow on the ground (we were hardly warm in the house with big fires everywhere), I couldn't send away women with four or five children, all insufficiently clothed and fed, most of them in cotton frocks with an old worn knit shawl around their shoulders, legs and arms bare and chapped, half frozen. Some of them lived in caverns or great holes in the rocks, really like beasts. On the road to La Ferte there was a big hole (there is no other word for it) in the bank where a whole family lived. The man was always in prison for something, and his wife, a tall, gaunt figure, with wild hair and eyes, spent most of her time in the woods teaching her boys to set traps for the game. The cure told us that one of the children was ill, and that there was literally nothing in the house, so I took one of my cousins with me, and we climbed up the bank, leaving the carriage with Hubert, the coachman, expostulating seriously below. We came to a rickety old door which practically consisted of two rotten planks nailed together. It was ajar; clouds of black smoke poured out as we opened it, and it was some time before we could see anything. We finally made out a heap of filthy rags in one corner near a sort of fire made of charred pieces of black peat. Two children, one a boy about twelve years old, was lying on the heap of rags, coughing his heart out. He hardly raised his head when we came in. Another child, a girl, some two years younger, was lying beside him, both of them frightfully thin and white; one saw nothing but great dark eyes in their faces. The mother was crouched on the floor close to the children. She hardly moved at first, and was really a terrifying object when she got up; half savage, scarcely clothed—a short petticoat in holes and a ragged bodice gaping open over her bare skin, no shoes or stockings; big black eyes set deep in her head, and a quantity of unkempt black hair. She looked enormous when she stood up, her head nearly touching the roof. I didn't feel very comfortable, but we were two, and the carriage and Hubert within call. The woman was civil enough when she saw I had not come empty-handed. We took her some soup, bread, and milk. The children pounced upon the bread like little wild animals. The mother didn't touch anything while we were there—said she was glad to have the milk for the boy. I never saw human beings living in such utter filth and poverty. A crofter's cottage in Scotland, or an Irish hovel with the pigs and children all living together, was a palace compared to that awful hole. I remonstrated vigorously with W. and the Mayor of La Ferte for allowing people to live in that way, like beasts, upon the highroad, close to a perfectly prosperous country town. However, they were vagrants, couldn't live anywhere, for when we passed again, some days later, there was no one in the hole. The door had fallen down, there was no smoke coming out, and the neighbours told us the family had suddenly disappeared. The authorities then took up the matter—the holes were filled up, and no one was allowed to live in them. It really was too awful—like the dwellers in caves of primeval days.
We didn't have many visits at the chateau, though we were so near Paris (only about an hour and a half by the express), but the old people had got accustomed to their quiet life, and visitors would have worried them. Sometimes a Protestant pasteur would come down for two days. We had a nice visit once from M. de Pressense, father of the present deputy, one of the most charming, cultivated men one could imagine. He talked easily and naturally, using beautiful language. He was most interesting when he told us about the Commune, and all the horrors of that time in Paris. He was in the Tuileries when the mob sacked and burned the palace; saw the femmes de la halle sitting on the brocade and satin sofas, saying, "C'est nous les princesses maintenant"; saw the entrance of the troops from Versailles, and the quantity of innocent people shot who were merely standing looking on at the barricades, having never had a gun in their hands. The only thing I didn't like was his long extempore (to me familiar) prayers at night. I believe it is a habit in some old-fashioned French Protestant families to pray for each member of the family by name. I thought it was bad enough when he prayed for the new menage just beginning their married life (that was us), that they might be spiritually guided to do their best for each other and their respective families; but when he proceeded to name some others of the family who had strayed a little from the straight and narrow path, hoping they would be brought to see, by Divine grace, the error of their ways, I was horrified, and could hardly refrain from expressing my opinion to the old people. However, I was learning prudence, and when my opinion and judgment were diametrically opposed to those of my new family (which happened often) I kept them to myself. Sunday was strictly kept. There was no Protestant church anywhere near. We had a service in the morning in M. A.'s library. He read prayers and a short sermon, all the household appearing, as most of the servants were Swiss and Protestants. In the afternoon Mme. A. had all the village children at the chateau. She had a small organ in one of the rooms in the wing of the dining-room, taught them hymns and read them simple little stories. The cure was rather anxious at first, having his little flock under such a dangerous heretic influence, but he very soon realized what an excellent thing it was for the children, and both he and the mothers were much disappointed when anything happened to put off the lesson. They didn't see much of the cure. He would pay one formal visit in the course of the year, but there was never any intimacy.
We lived much for ourselves, and for a few months in the year it was a rest and change from Paris, and the busy, agitated life, social and political, that one always led there. I liked the space, too, the great high, empty rooms, with no frivolous little tables and screens or stuff on the walls, no photograph stands nor fancy vases for flowers, no bibelot of any kind—large, heavy pieces of furniture which were always found every morning in exactly the same place. Once or twice, in later years, I tried to make a few changes, but it was absolutely useless to contend with a wonderful old servant called Ferdinand, who was over sixty years old, and had been brought up at the chateau, had always remained there with the various owners, and who knew every nook and corner of the house and everything that was in it. It was years before I succeeded in talking to him. I used to meet him sometimes on the stairs and corridors, always running, and carrying two or three pails and brooms. If he could, he dived into any open door when he saw me coming, and apparently never heard me when I spoke, for he never answered. He was a marvellous servant, cleaned the whole house, opened and shut all the windows night and morning (almost work enough for one man), lit the caloriferes, scrubbed and swept and polished floors from early dawn until ten o'clock, when we left the salon. He never lived with the other servants, cooked his own food at his own hours in his room, and his only companion was a large black cat, which always followed him about. He did W.'s service, and W. said that they used to talk about all sorts of things, but I fancy master and servant were equally reticent and understood each other without many words.
I slipped one day on the very slippery wooden steps leading from W.'s little study to the passage. Baby did the same, and got a nasty fall on the stone flags, so I asked W. if he would ask Ferdinand to put a strip of carpet on the steps (there were only four). W. gave the order, but no carpet appeared. He repeated it rather curtly. The old Ferdinand made no answer, but grumbled to himself over his broom that it was perfectly foolish and useless to put down a piece of carpet, that for sixty years people and children, and babies, had walked down those steps and no one had ever thought of asking for carpets. W. had really rather to apologize and explain that his wife was nervous and unused to such highly polished floors. However, we became great friends afterward, Ferdinand and I, and when he understood how fond I was of the chateau, he didn't mind my deranging the furniture a little. Two grand pianos were a great trial to him. I think he would have liked to put one on top of the other.
The library, quite at one end of the house, separated from the drawing-room we always sat in by a second large salon, was a delightful, quiet resort when any one wanted to read or write. There were quantities of books, French, English, and German—the classics in all three languages, and a fine collection of historical memoirs.
We didn't pay many visits; but sometimes, when the weather was fine and there was no hunting, and W. gone upon an expedition to some outlying village, Mme. A. and I would start off for one of the neighbouring chateaux. We went one day to the chateau de C, where there was a large family party assembled, four generations—the old grandmother, her son and daughter, both married, the daughter's daughter, also married, and her children. It was a pretty drive, about an hour all through the forest. The house is quite modern, not at all pretty, a square white building, with very few trees near it, the lawn and one or two flower-beds not particularly well kept. The grounds ran straight down to the Villers-Cotterets forest, where M. M. has good shooting. The gates were open, the concierge said the ladies were there. (They didn't have to be summoned by a bell. That is one of the habits of this part of the country. There is almost always a large bell at the stable or "communs," and when visitors arrive and the family are out in the grounds, not too far off, they are summoned by the bell. I was quite surprised one day at Bourneville, when we were in the woods at some little distance from the chateau, when we heard the bell, and my companion, a niece of Mme. A., instantly turned back, saying, "That means there are visits; we must go back.") We found all the ladies sitting working in a corner salon with big windows opening on the park. The old grandmother was knitting, but she was so straight and slight, with bright black eyes, that it wouldn't have seemed at all strange to see her bending over an embroidery frame like all the others. The other three ladies were each seated at an embroidery frame in the embrasures of the windows. I was much impressed, particularly with the large pieces of work that they were undertaking, a portiere, covers for the billiard-table, bed, etc. It quite recalled what one had always read of feudal France, when the seigneur would be off with his retainers hunting or fighting, and the chatelaine, left alone in the chateau, spent her time in her "bower" surrounded by her maidens, all working at the wonderful tapestries one sees still in some of the old churches and convents. I was never much given to work, but I made a mental resolve that I, too, would set up a frame in one of the drawing-rooms at home, and had visions of yards of pale-blue satin, all covered with wonderful flowers and animals, unrolling themselves under my skilful fingers—but I must confess that it remained a vision. I never got further than little crochet petticoats, which clothed every child in the village. To make the picture complete there should have been a page in velvet cap and doublet, stretched on the floor at the feet of his mistress, trying to distract her with songs and ballads. The master of the house, M. M., was there, having come in from shooting. He had been reading aloud to the ladies—Alfred de Musset, I think. That part of the picture I could never realize, as there is nothing W. loathes like reading aloud except, perhaps, being read to.
They were very friendly and easy, showed us the downstairs part of the house, and gave us gouter, not tea, wine and cake. The house looked comfortable enough, nothing picturesque; a large square hall with horns, whips, foxes' brushes, antlers, and all sorts of trophies of the chase on the walls. They are sporting people; all ride. The dining-room, a large bright room, was panelled with life-size portraits of the family: M. and Mme. M. in hunting dress, green coats, tricorne hats, on their horses; the daughter of the house and one of her brothers, rowing in a boat on a small lake; the eldest son in shooting dress, corduroys, his gun slung over his shoulder, his dog by his side. They were all very like.
We strolled about the garden a little, and saw lots of pheasants walking peacefully about at the edge of the woods. They made me promise to come back one day with W., he to shoot and I to walk about with the ladies. We saw the children of the fourth generation, and left with the impression of a happy, simple family party. M. M. was a conseiller general of the Aisne and a colleague of W.'s. They always stayed at the same hotel (de la Hure) in Laon at the time of the conseil general, and M. M. was much amused at first with W.'s baggage: a large bath-tub, towels (for in small French provincial hotels towels were microscopic and few in number), and a package of tea, which was almost an unknown commodity in those days. None of our visitors ever took any, and always excused themselves with the same phrase, "Merci, je vais bien," evidently looking upon it as some strange and hurtful medicine. That has all changed, like everything else. Now one finds tea not only at all the chateaux, with brioches and toast, but even in all the hotels, but I wouldn't guarantee what we get there as ever having seen China or Ceylon, and it is still wiser to take chocolate or coffee, which is almost always good. We had a lovely drive back. The forest was beautiful in the waning light. As usual, we didn't meet any vehicle of any kind, and were quite excited when we saw a carriage approaching in the distance—however, it proved to be W. in his dog-cart. We passed through one or two little villages quite lost in the forest—always the same thing, one long, straggling street, with nobody in it, a large farm at one end and very often the church at the other. As it was late, the farm gates were all open, the cattle inside, teams of white oxen drinking out of a large trough.
In a large farm near Boursonne there was much animation and conversation. All the beasts were in, oxen, cows, horses, chickens, and in one corner, a flock of geese. The poor little "goose girl," a child about ten years old with bright-blue eyes and a pig-tail like straw hanging down her back, was being scolded violently by the farmer's wife, who was presiding in person over the rentree of the animals, for having brought her geese home on a run. They wouldn't eat, and would certainly all be ill, and probably die before morning. There is a pretty little old chateau at Boursonne; the park, however, so shut in by high walls that one sees nothing in passing. W. had shot there once or twice in former years, but it has changed hands very often.
Sometimes we paid more humble visits, not to chateaux, but to the principal people of the little country town near, from which we had all our provisions. We went to see the doctor's wife, the notary's wife, the mayor's wife, and the two schools—the asile or infant school, and the more important school for bigger girls. The old doctor was quite a character, had been for years in the country, knew everybody and everybody's private history. He was the doctor of the chateau, by the year, attended to everybody, masters and servants, and received a regular salary, like a secretary. He didn't come very often for us in his medical capacity, but he often dropped in at the end of the day to have a talk with W. The first time I saw him W. presented him to me, as un bon ami de la famille. I naturally put out my hand, which so astonished and disconcerted him (he barely touched the tips of my fingers) that I was rather bewildered. W. explained after he had gone that in that class of life in France they never shook hands with a lady, and that the poor man was very much embarrassed. He was very useful to W. as a political agent, as he was kind to the poor people and took small (or no) fees. They all loved him, and talked to him quite freely. His women-kind were very shy and provincial. I think our visits were a great trial to them. They always returned them most punctiliously, and came in all their best clothes. When we went to see them we generally found them in short black skirts, and when they were no longer very young, with black caps, but they always had handsome silk dresses, velvet cloaks, and hats with flowers and feathers when they came to see us. Some of them took the cup of tea we offered, but they didn't know what to do with it, and sat on the edge of their chairs, looking quite miserable until we relieved them of the burden of the tea-cup. Mme. A. was rather against the tea-table; she preferred the old-fashioned tray handed around with wine and cakes, but I persuaded her to try, and after a little while she acknowledged that it was better to have the tea-table brought in. It made a diversion; I got up to make the tea. Someone gave me a chair, someone else handed the cups. It made a little movement, and was not so stiff as when we all sat for over an hour on the same chairs making conversation. It is terrible to have to make conversation, and extraordinary how little one finds to say. We had always talked easily enough at home, but then things came more naturally, and even the violent family discussions were amusing, but my recollection of these French provincial visits is something awful. Everybody so polite, so stiff, and the long pauses when nobody seemed to have anything to say. I of course was a novelty and a foreign element—they didn't quite know what to do with me. Even to Mme. A., and I grew very fond of her, and she was invariably charming to me, I was something different. We had many talks on every possible subject during our long drives, and also in the winter afternoons. At first I had my tea always upstairs in my own little salon, which I loved with the curtains drawn, a bright wood-fire burning, and all my books about; but when I found that she sat alone in the big drawing-room, not able to occupy herself in any way, I asked her if I might order my tea there, and there were very few afternoons that I didn't sit with her when I was at home. She talked often about her early married life—winters in Cannes and in Paris, where they received a great deal, principally Protestants, and I fancy she sometimes regretted the interchange of ideas and the brilliant conversation she had been accustomed to, but she never said it. She was never tired of hearing about my early days in America—our family life—the extraordinary liberty of the young people, etc. We often talked over the religious question, and though we were both Protestants, we were as far apart almost as if one was a pagan. Protestantism in France always has seemed to me such a rigid form of worship, so little calculated to influence young people or draw them to church. The plain, bare churches with white-washed walls, the long sermons and extempore prayers, speaking so much of the anger of God and the terrible punishments awaiting the sinner, the trials and sorrows that must come to all. I often think of a sermon I heard preached in one Protestant church, to the boys and girls who were making their first communion—all little things, the girls in their white frocks and long white veils, the boys with white waistcoats and white ribbons on their arms, making such a pretty group as they sat on the front benches listening hard to all the preacher said. I wondered that the young, earnest faces didn't suggest something to him besides the horrors of eternal punishment, the wickedness and temptations of the world they were going to face, but his only idea seemed to be that he must warn them of all the snares and temptations that were going to beset their paths. Mme. A. couldn't understand my ideas when I said I loved the Episcopal service—the prayers and litany I had always heard, the Easter and Christmas hymns I had always sung, the carols, the anthems, the great organ, the flowers at Easter, the greens at Christmas. All that seemed to her to be a false sentiment appealing to the senses and imagination. "But if it brings people to church, and the beautiful music elevates them and raises their thoughts to higher things—" "That is not religion; real religion means the prayer of St. Chrysostom, 'Where two or three are gathered together in My name I will grant their requests.'" "That is very well for really religious, strong people who think out their religion and don't care for any outward expression of it, but for weaker souls who want to be helped, and who are helped by the beautiful music and the familiar prayers, surely it is better to give them something that brings them to church and makes them better men and women than to frighten them away with such strict, uncompromising doctrines—" "No, that is only sentiment, not real religious feeling." I don't think we ever understood each other any better on that subject, and we discussed it so often.
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Mme. A., with whom I made my round of calls at the neighbouring chateaux, was a charming companion. She had lived a great deal in Paris, in the Protestant coterie, which was very intellectual and cultivated. The salons of the Duchesse de Broglie, Mmes. de Stael, d'Haussonville, Guizot, were most interesting and recherches, very exclusive and very serious, but a centre for all political and literary talk. I have often heard my husband say some of the best talkers in society s'etaient formes dans ces salons, where, as young men, they listened modestly to all the brilliant conversation going on around them.
It was an exception when we found anyone at home when we called in the neighbourhood, and when we did, it was evident that afternoon visits were a rarity. We did get in one cold November afternoon, and our visit was a sample of many others that we paid.
The door was opened by a footman struggling into his coat, with a handful of faggots in his arms. He ushered us through several bare, stiff, cold rooms (proportions handsome enough) to a smaller salon, which the family usually occupied. Then he lighted a fire (which consisted principally of smoke) and went to summon his mistress. The living-room was just as bare and stiff as the others, no trace of anything that looked like habitation or what we should consider comfort—no books nor work nor flowers (that, however, is comparatively recent in France). I remember quite well Mme. Casimir-Perier telling me that when she went with her husband to St. Petersburg about fifty years ago, one of the things that struck her most in the Russian salons, was the quantity of green plants and cut flowers—she had never seen them in France. There were often fine pictures, tapestries, and furniture, all the chairs in a row against the wall.
Our visits were always long, as most of the chateaux were at a certain distance, and we were obliged to stay an hour and a half, sometimes longer, to rest the horses. It was before the days of five-o'clock tea. A tray was brought in with sweet wine (Malaga or Vin de Chypre) and cakes (ladies'-fingers) which evidently had figured often before on similar occasions. Conversation languished sometimes, though Mme. A. was wonderful, talking so easily about everything. In the smaller places, when people rarely went to Paris, it ran always in the same grooves—the woods, the hunting (very good in the Villers-Cotterets forest), the schoolmaster (so difficult to get proper books for the children to read), the cure, and all local gossip, and as much about the iniquities of the republic as could be said before the wife of a republican senator. Wherever we went, even to the largest chateaux, where the family went to Paris for the season, the talk was almost entirely confined to France and French interests. Books, politics, music, people, nothing existed apparently au-dela des frontieres. America was an unknown quantity. It was strange to see intelligent people living in the world so curiously indifferent as to what went on in other countries. At first I used to talk a little about America and Rome, where I had lived many years and at such an interesting time—the last days of Pio Nono and the transformation of the old superstitious papal Rome to the capital of young Italy—but I soon realized that it didn't interest any one, and by degrees I learned to talk like all the rest.
I often think of one visit to a charming little Louis XV chateau standing quite on the edge of the forest—just room enough for the house, and the little hamlet at the gates; a magnificent view of the forest, quite close to the lawn behind the chateau, and then sweeping off, a dark-blue mass, as far as one could see. We were shown into a large, high room, no carpet, no fire, some fine portraits, very little furniture, all close against the wall, a round table in the middle with something on it, I couldn't make out what at first. Neither books, reviews, nor even a photographic album—the supreme resource of provincial salons. When we got up to take leave I managed to get near the table, and the ornament was a large white plate with a piece of fly-paper on it. The mistress of the house was shy and uncomfortable; sent at once for her husband, and withdrew from the conversation as soon as he appeared, leaving him to make all the "frais." We walked a little around the park before leaving. It was really a lovely little place, with its background of forest and the quiet, sleepy little village in front; very lonely and far from everything, but with a certain charm of its own. Two or three dogs were playing in the court-yard, and one curious little animal who made a rush at the strangers. I was rather taken aback, particularly when the master of the house told me not to be afraid, it was only a marcassin (small wild boar), who had been born on the place, and was as quiet as a kitten. I did not think the great tusks and square, shaggy head looked very pleasant, but the little thing was quiet enough, came and rubbed itself against its master's legs and played quite happily with the dogs. We heard afterward that they were obliged to kill it. It grew fierce and unmanageable, and no one would come near the place.
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I took Henrietta with me sometimes when I had a distant visit to pay; an hour and a half's drive alone on a country road where you never meet anything was rather dull. We went one cold December afternoon to call upon Mme. B., the widow of an old friend and colleague of W.'s. We were in the open carriage, well wrapped up, and enjoyed the drive immensely. The country looked beautiful in the bright winter sunshine, the distant forest always in a blue mist, the trees with their branches white with "givre" (hoarfrost), and patches of snow and ice all over the fields.
For a wonder we didn't go through the forest—drove straight away from it and had charming effects of colour upon some of the thatched cottages in the villages we passed through; one or two had been mended recently and the mixture of old brown, bright red and glistening white was quite lovely.
We went almost entirely along the great plains, occasionally small bits of wood and very fair hills as we got near our destination. The villages always very scattered and almost deserted—when it is cold everybody stays indoors—and of course there is no work to be done on the farms when the ground is hard frozen. It is a difficult question to know what to do with the men of all the small hamlets when the real winter sets in; the big farms turn off many of their labourers, and as it is a purely agricultural country all around us there is literally nothing to do. My husband and several of the owners of large estates gave work to many with their regular "coupe" of wood, but that only lasts a short time, and the men who are willing to work but can find nothing drift naturally into cafes and billiard saloons, where they read cheap bad papers and talk politics of the wildest description.
We found our chateau very well situated on the top of a hill, a good avenue leading up to the gate, a pretty little park with fine trees at the back, the tower of the village church just visible through the trees at the end of the central alley. It was hardly a chateau—half manor, half farm. We drove into a large courtyard, or rather farmyard, quite deserted; no one visible anywhere; the door of the house was open, but there was no bell nor apparently any means of communicating with any one. Hubert cracked his whip noisily several times without any result—and we were just wondering what we should do (perhaps put our cards under a stone on the steps) when a man appeared, said Mme. B. was at home, but she was in the stable looking after a sick cow—he would go and tell her we were there. In a few minutes she appeared attired in a short, rusty-black skirt, sabots on her feet, and a black woollen shawl over her head and shoulders. She seemed quite pleased to see us—was not at all put out at being caught in such very simple attire—begged us to come in and ushered us through a long, narrow hall and several cold, comfortless rooms, the shutters not open and no fire anywhere, into her bedroom. All the furniture—chairs, tables and bed—was covered with linen. She explained that it was her "lessive" (general wash) she had just made, that all the linen was dry, but she had not had time to put it away. She called a maid and they cleared off two chairs—she sat on the bed.
It was frightfully cold—we were thankful we had kept our wraps on. She said she supposed we would like a fire after our long, cold drive, and rang for a man to bring some wood. He (in his shirt sleeves) appeared with two or three logs of wood and was preparing to make a fire with them all, but she stopped him, said one log was enough, the ladies were not going to stay long—so, naturally, we had no fire and clouds of smoke. She was very talkative, never stopped—told us all about her servants, her husband's political campaigns and how W. would never have been named to the Conseil General if M.B. hadn't done all his work for him. She asked a great many questions, answering them all herself; then said, "I don't offer you any tea, as I know you always go back to have your tea at home, and I am quite sure you don't want any wine."
There was such an evident reluctance to give us anything that I didn't like to insist, and said we must really be going as we had a long drive before us, though I should have liked something hot; tea, of course, she knew nothing about, but even a glass of ordinary hot wine, which they make very well in France, would have been acceptable. Henrietta was furious; she was shivering with cold, her eyes smarting with the smoke, and not at all interested in M.B.'s political career, or Madame's servants, and said she would have been thankful to have even a glass of vin de Chypre.
It was unfortunate, perhaps, that we had arrived during the "lessive"; that is always a most important function in France. In almost all the big houses in the country (small ones, too) that is the way they do their washing; once a month or once every three months, according to the size of the establishment, the whole washing of the household is done; all the linen: master's, servants', guests'; house is turned out; the linen closets cleaned and aired! Every one looks busy and energetic. It is quite a long affair—lasts three or four days. I often went to see the performance when we made our "lessive" at the chateau every month.
It always interested our English and American friends, as the washing is never done in that way in either of their countries. It was very convenient at our place as we had plenty of room. The "lavoir" stood at the top of the steps leading into the kitchen gardens; there was a large, square tank sunk in the ground, so that the women could kneel to their work, then a little higher another of beautiful clear water, all under cover. Just across the path there was a small house with a blazing wood fire; in the middle an enormous tub where all the linen was passed through wood ashes. There were four "lessiveuses" (washerwomen), sturdy peasant women with very short skirts, sabots, and turbans (made of blue and white checked calico) on their heads, their strong red arms bared above the elbow. The Mere Michon, the eldest of the four, directed everything and kept them well at work, allowed very little talking; they generally chatter when they are washing and very often quarrel. When they are washing at the public "lavoir" in the village one hears their shrill voices from a great distance. Our "lingere," Mme. Hubert, superintended the whole operation; she was very keen about it and remonstrated vigorously when they slapped the linen too hard sometimes with the little flat sticks, like spades, they use. The linen all came out beautifully white and smooth, hadn't the yellow look that all city-washed clothes have.
I think Mme. B. was very glad to get rid of us, and to begin folding her linen and putting it back in the big wooden wardrobes, that one sees everywhere in France. Some of the old Norman wardrobes, with handsome brass locks and beautifully carved doors, are real works of art—very difficult to get and very expensive. Fifty years ago the peasant did not understand the value of such a "meuble" and parted with it easily—but now, with railways everywhere and strangers and bric-a-brac people always on the lookout for a really old piece of furniture, they understand quite well that they possess a treasure and exact its full value.
Our drive back was rather shorter, downhill almost all the way, the horses going along at a good steady trot, knowing they were going home.
When we drew up at our own door Hubert remarked respectfully that he thought it was the first time that Madame and Mademoiselle had ever been received by a lady in sabots.
We wondered afterward if she had personally attended to the cow—in the way of poulticing or rubbing it. She certainly didn't wash her hands afterward, and it rather reminded me of one of Charles de Bunsen's stories when he was Secretary of Legation at Turin. In the summer they took a villa in the country just out of the town and had frequent visitors to lunch or dinner. One day two of their friends, Italians, had spent the whole day with them; had walked in the garden, picked fruit and flowers, played with the child and the dogs and the pony, and as they were coming back to the house for dinner, Charles suggested that they might like to come up to his dressing-room and wash their hands before dinner—to which one of them replied, "Grazie, non mi sporco facilmente" (literal translation, "Thanks, I don't dirty myself easily"), and declined the offer of soap and water.
* * * * *
We paid two or three visits one year to the neighbouring chateaux, and had one very pleasant afternoon at the Chateau de Pinon, belonging to the Courval family. W. had known the late proprietor, the Vicomte de Courval, very well. They had been colleagues of the Conseil General of the Aisne, were both very fond of the country and country life, and used to have long talks in the evening, when the work of the day was over, about plantation, cutting down trees, preservation of game, etc. Without these talks, I think W. would have found the evenings at the primitive little Hotel de la Hure, at Laon, rather tedious.
The chateau is not very old and has no historic interest. It was built by a Monsieur du Bois, Vicomte de Courval, at the end of the seventeenth century. He lived at first in the old feudal chateau of which nothing now remains. Already times were changing—the thick walls, massive towers, high, narrow windows, almost slits, and deep moat, which were necessary in the old troubled days, when all isolated chateaux might be called upon, at any time, to defend themselves from sudden attack, had given way to the larger and more spacious residences of which Mansard, the famous architect of Louis XIV, has left so many chefs d'oeuvre. It was to Mansard that M. de Courval confided the task of building the chateau as it now stands, while the no less famous Le Notre was charged to lay out the park and gardens.
It was an easy journey from B——ville to Pinon. An hour's drive through our beautiful forest of Villers-Cotterets and another hour in the train. We stopped at the little station of Anizy just outside the gates of the park; a brougham was waiting for us and a very short drive through a stately avenue brought us to the drawbridge and the iron gates of the "Cour d'honneur." The house looked imposing; I had an impression of a very high and very long facade with two towers stretching out into the court-yard, which is very large, with fine old trees and broad parterres of bright-coloured flowers on either side of the steps. There was a wide moat of running water, the banks covered with shrubs and flowers—the flowers were principally salvias and chrysanthemums, as it was late in the season, but they made a warm bit of colour. The house stands low, as do all houses surrounded by a moat, but the park rises a little directly behind it and there is a fine background of wood.
We drew up at a flight of broad, shallow steps; the doors were open. There were three or four footmen in the ante-room. While we were taking off our wraps Mme. de Courval appeared; she was short, stout, dressed in black, with that terrible black cap which all widows wear in France—so different from the white cap and soft white muslin collar and cuffs we are accustomed to. She had a charming, easy manner and looked very intelligent and capable. It seems she managed the property extremely well, made the tour of the house, woods and garden every day with her "regisseur." W. had the highest opinion of her business capacity—said she knew the exact market value of everything on the place—from an old tree that must be cut down for timber to the cheeses the farmer's wife made and sold at the Soissons market.
She suggested that I should come upstairs to leave my heavy coat. We went up a broad stone staircase, the walls covered with pictures and engravings; one beautiful portrait of her daughter, the Marquise de Chaponay, on horseback. There were handsome carved chests and china vases on the landing, which opened on a splendid long gallery, very high and light—bedrooms on one side, on the other big windows (ten or twelve, I should think) looking over the park and gardens. She took me to a large, comfortable room, bright wood fire blazing, and a pretty little dressing-room opening out of it, furnished in a gay, old-fashioned pattern of chintz. She said breakfast would be ready in ten minutes—supposed I could find my way down, and left me to my own devices.
I found the family assembled in the drawing-room; four women: Mme. de Courval and her daughter, the Marquise de Chaponay, a tall handsome woman, and two other ladies of a certain age; I did not catch their names, but they looked like all the old ladies one always sees in a country house in France. I should think they were cousins or habituees of the chateau, as they each had their embroidery frame and one a little dog. I am haunted by the embroidery frames—I am sure I shall end my days in a black cap, bending over a frame making portieres or a piano-cover.
We breakfasted in a large square dining-room running straight through the house, windows on each side. The room was all in wood panelling—light gray—the sun streaming in through the windows. Mme. de Courval put W. on her right, me on her other side. We had an excellent breakfast, which we appreciated after our early start. There was handsome old silver on the table and sideboard, which is a rare thing in France, as almost all the silver was melted during the Revolution. Both Mme. de Courval and her daughter were very easy and animated. The Marquise de Chaponay told me she had known W. for years, that in the old days before he became such a busy man and so engrossed in politics he used to read Alfred de Musset to her, in her atelier, while she painted. She supposed he read now to me—which he certainly never did—as he always told me he hated reading aloud. They talked politics, of course, but their opinions were the classic Faubourg St. Germain opinions: "A Republic totally unfitted for France and the French"—"none of the gentlemen in France really Republican at heart" (with evidently a few exceptions)—W.'s English blood and education having, of course, influenced him.
As soon as breakfast was over one of the windows on the side of the moat was opened and we all gave bread to the carp, handed to us by the butler—small square pieces of bread in a straw basket. It was funny to see the fish appear as soon as the window was opened—some of them were enormous and very old. It seems they live to a great age; a guardian of the Palace at Fontainebleau always shows one to tourists, who is supposed to have been fed by the Emperor Napoleon. Those of Pinon knew all about it, lifting their brown heads out of the water and never missing their piece of bread.
We went back to the drawing-room for coffee, passing through the billiard room, where there are some good pictures. A fine life-size portrait of General Moreau (father of Mme. de Courval) in uniform, by Gerard—near it a trophy of four flags—Austrian, Saxon, Bavarian, and Hungarian—taken by the General; over the trophy three or four "lames d'honneur" (presentation swords) with name and inscription. There are also some pretty women's portraits in pastel—very delicate colours in old-fashioned oval frames—quite charming.
The drawing-room was a very handsome room also panelled in light gray carved wood; the furniture rather heavy and massive, curtains and coverings of thick, bright flowered velvet, but it looked suitable in that high old-fashioned room—light modern furniture would have been out of place.
As soon as we had finished our coffee we went for a walk—not the two old ladies, who settled down at once to their embroidery frames; one of them showed me her work—really quite beautiful—a church ornament of some kind, a painted Madonna on a ground of white satin; she was covering the whole ground with heavy gold embroidery, so thick it looked like mosaic.
The park is splendid, a real domain, all the paths and alleys beautifully kept and every description of tree—M. de Courval was always trying experiments with foreign trees and shrubs and apparently most successfully. I think the park would have been charming in its natural state, as there was a pretty little river running through the grounds and some tangles of bushes and rocks that looked quite wild—it might have been in the middle of the forest but everything had been done to assist nature. There were a "piece d'eau," cascades, little bridges thrown over the river in picturesque spots, and on the highest point a tower (donjon), which was most effective, looked quite the old feudal towers of which so few remain now. They were used as watch towers, as a sentinel posted on the top could see a great distance over the plains and give warning of the approach of the enemy. As the day was fine—no mist—we had a beautiful view from the top, seeing plainly the great round tower of Coucy, the finest ruin in France—the others made out quite well the towers of the Laon Cathedral, but those I couldn't distinguish, seeing merely a dark spot on the horizon which might have been a passing cloud.
Coming back we crossed the "Allee des Soupirs," which has its legend like so many others in this country: It was called the "Allee des Soupirs" on account of the tragedy that took place there. The owner of the chateau at that time—a Comte de Lamothe—discovered his wife on too intimate terms with his great friend and her cousin; they fought in the Allee, and the Comte de Lamothe was killed by his friend. The widow tried to brave it out and lived on for some time at the chateau; but she was accursed and an evil spell on the place—everything went wrong and the chateau finally burnt down. The place was then sold to the de Courval family.
At the end of an hour the Marquise had had enough; I should not think she was much of a walker; she was struggling along in high-heeled shoes and proposed that she and I should return to the house and she would show me her atelier. W. and Mme. de Courval continued their tour of inspection which was to finish at the Home Farm, where she wanted to show him some small Breton cows which had just arrived. The atelier was a charming room; panelled like all the others in a light grey wood. One hardly saw the walls, for they were covered with pictures, engravings and a profusion of mirrors in gilt oval frames. It was evidently a favourite haunt of the Marquise's: books, papers and painting materials scattered about; the piano open and quantities of music on the music-stand; miniatures, snuff-boxes and little old-fashioned bibelots on all the tables, and an embroidery frame, of course, in one of the windows, near it a basket filled with bright coloured silks. The miniatures were, almost all, portraits of de Courvals of every age and in every possible costume: shepherdesses, court ladies of the time of Louis XV, La Belle Ferronniere with the jewel on her forehead, men in armour with fine, strongly marked faces; they must have been a handsome race. It is a pity there is no son to carry on the name. One daughter-in-law had no children; the other one, born an American, Mary Ray of New York, had only one daughter, the present Princesse de Poix, to whom Pinon now belongs.
We played a little; four hands—the classics, of course. All French women of that generation who played at all were brought up on strictly classical music. She had a pretty, delicate, old-fashioned touch; her playing reminded me of Madame A.'s.
When it was too dark to see any more we sat by the fire and talked till the others came in. She asked a great deal about my new life in Paris—feared I would find it stiff and dull after the easy happy family life I had been accustomed to. I said it was very different, of course, but there was much that was interesting, only I did not know the people well enough yet to appreciate the stories they were always telling about each other, also that I had made several "gaffes" quite innocently. I told her one which amused her very much, though she could not imagine how I ever could have said it. It was the first year of my marriage; we were dining in an Orleanist house, almost all the company Royalists and intimate friends of the Orleans Princes, and three or four moderate, very moderate Republicans like us. It was the 20th of January and the women were all talking about a ball they were going to the next night, 21st of January (anniversary of the death of Louis XVI). They supposed they must wear mourning—such a bore. Still, on account of the Comtesse de Paris and the Orleans family generally, they thought they must do it—upon which I asked, really very much astonished: "On account of the Orleans family? but did not the Duc d'Orleans vote the King's execution?" There was an awful silence and then M. Leon Say, one of the cleverest and most delightful men of his time, remarked, with a twinkle in his eye: "Ma foi; je crois que Mme. Waddington a raison." There was a sort of nervous laugh and the conversation was changed. W. was much annoyed with me, "a foreigner so recently married, throwing down the gauntlet in that way." I assured him I had no purpose of any kind—I merely said what I thought, which is evidently unwise.
Mme. de Chaponay said she was afraid I would find it very difficult sometimes. French people—in society at least—were so excited against the Republic, anti-religious feeling, etc. "It must be very painful for you." "I don't think so; you see I am American, Republican and a Protestant; my point of view must be very different from that of a Frenchwoman and a Catholic." She was very charming, however; intelligent, cultivated, speaking beautiful French with a pretty carefully trained voice—English just as well; we spoke the two languages going from one to the other without knowing why. I was quite sorry when we were summoned to tea. The room looked so pretty in the twilight, the light from the fire danced all over the pictures and gilt frames of the mirrors, leaving the corners quite in shadow. The curtains were not drawn and we saw the darkness creeping up over the lawn; quite at the edge of the wood the band of white mist was rising, which we love to see in our part of the country, as it always means a fine day for the morrow.
We had a cheery tea. W. and Mme. de Courval had made a long "tournee," and W. quite approved of all the changes and new acquisitions she had made, particularly the little Breton cows. We left rather hurriedly as we had just time to catch our train.
Our last glimpse of the chateau as we looked back from the turn in the avenue was charming; there were lights in almost all the windows, which were reflected in the moat; the moon was rising over the woods at the back, and every tower and cornice of the enormous pile stood out sharply in the cold clear light.