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 gayest.
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 subjects.
"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 fortune.
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 never had.
But no "regrettable incidents" marred a delightful holiday. Imbroglios such as these only leave memories to smile at, and add zest to recollection.
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 rural scenes.
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 equally marked.
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 and draughts.
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 third postmistress.
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 undergrowth.
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 Berri.
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 adjoining rock,
"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 hospitality.
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 age.
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 forget it.
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 one.
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 literary tastes.
"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 them.
"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 acceptable.
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 presented her.
"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 the wind.
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 orchards.
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 ruin.
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 rocks.
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 information.
"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 cyclist.
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 flashing by.
There is no more splendid cycling ground in the world than this forest of Fontainebleau.
"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 Is delicate."
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 movements.
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 Mirouet"?
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, Paris."
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 ornamentation.
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 Charite.
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 still remaining.
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 illumination.
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 themselves!
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 read, poet:—
"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 side.
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 limpid waters.
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 days.
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 places."
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 goods.
"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.