"Travelling in France without hotels, or guide-books," might, with very little exaggeration, be chosen as a title to this volume, which is, indeed, the record of one visit after another among charming French people, and in delightful places, out of the ordinary track of the tourist. Alike in the valley of the Marne—amongst French Protestants at Montbeliard—at Besancon amid the beautiful scenery of the Doubs—at Lons-le-Saunier, from whence so many interesting excursions were made into the Jura—in the very heart of the Jura highlands—at Champagnole, Morez, and St. Claude, it was my good fortune to see everything under unique and most favourable auspices, to be no tourist indeed, but a guest, welcomed at every stage, and pioneered from place to place by educated ladies and gentlemen delighted to do the honours of their native place. Thus it came about that I saw, not only places, but people, and not only one class, but all, peasant and proprietor, Protestant and Catholic, the bourgeoisie of the towns, the mountaineers of the highlands, the schoolmaster, the pastor, the cure. Wherever I went, moreover, I felt that I was breaking new ground, the most interesting country I visited being wholly unfamiliar to the general run of tourists, for instance, the charming pastoral scenery of Seine and Marne, the picturesque valleys of the Doubs and the Loue, and the environs of Montbeliard and Besancon, the grand mountain fastnesses, close-shut valleys, or combes, the solitary lakes, cascades, and torrent rivers of the Jura.
Many of the most striking spots described in these pages are not even mentioned in Murray, whilst the difficulty of communication renders them comparatively unknown to the French themselves, only a few artists having as yet found them out. Ornans—Courbet's birth and favourite abiding place, in the valley of the Loue—is one of these. St. Hippolyte, near Montbeliard, is another, and a dozen more might be named equally beautiful, and, as yet, equally unknown. New lines of railway, however, are to be opened within the next few years in several directions, and thus the delightful scenery of Franche-Comte will, ere long, be rendered accessible to all. For the benefit of those travellers who are undaunted by difficulties, and prefer to go off the beaten track even at the risk of encountering discomforts, I have reprinted, with many additions, the following notes of visits and travel in the most interesting part of Eastern France, which, in part, originally appeared in "Frazer's Magazine," 1878.
In a former work, "Western France," I treated of a part of France which was ultra-Catholic; in this one I was chiefly among the more Protestant districts of the whole country, and it may be interesting to many to compare the two.
CHAPTER I. The Valley of the Marne
CHAPTER II. Noisiel: the City of Chocolate
CHAPTER III. Provins and Troyes
CHAPTER IV. Among French Protestants at Montbeliard
CHAPTER V. St. Hippolyte, Morteau, and the Swiss Borderland
CHAPTER VI. Besancon and its Environs
CHAPTER VII. Ornans, Courbet's Country, and the Valley of the Loue
CHAPTER VIII. Salins, Arbois, and the Wine Country of the Jura
CHAPTER IX. Lons-le-Saunier
CHAPTER X. Champagnole and Morez
CHAPTER XI. St. Claude: the Bishopric in the Mountains
CHAPTER XII. Nantua and the Church of Brou
Itineraries.—Outlines of Franc-Comtois History. Notes on the Geology of the Jura
HOLIDAYS IN EASTERN FRANCE.
THE VALLEY OF THE MARNE.
How delicious to escape from the fever heat and turmoil of Paris during the Exhibition to the green banks and sheltered ways of the gently undulating Marne! With what delight we wake up in the morning to the noise, if noise it can be called, of the mower's scythe, the rustle of acacia leaves, and the notes of the stock-dove, looking back as upon a nightmare to the horn of the tramway conductor, and the perpetual grind of the stone-mason's saw. Yes! to quit Paris at a time of tropic heat, and nestle down in some country resort is, indeed, like exchanging Dante's lower circle for Paradise. The heat has followed us here, but with a screen of luxuriant foliage ever between us and the burning blue sky, and with a breeze rippling the leaves always, no one need complain.
With the cocks and the hens, and the birds and the bees, we are all up and stirring betimes; there are dozens of cool nooks and corners if we like to spend the morning out of doors, and do not feel enterprising enough to set out on an exploring expedition by diligence or rail. After the midday meal everyone takes a siesta, as a matter of course, waking up between four and five o'clock for a ramble; wherever we go we find lovely prospects. Quiet little rivers and canals winding in between lofty lines of poplars, undulating pastures and amber cornfields, picturesque villages crowned by a church spire here and there, wide sweeps of highly cultivated land interspersed with rich woods, vineyards, orchards and gardens—all these make up the scenery familiarized to us by some of the most characteristic of French painters.
Just such tranquil rural pictures have been portrayed over and over again by Millet, Corot, Daubigny, and in this very simplicity often lies their charm. No costume or grandiose outline is here as in Brittany, no picturesque poverty, no poetic archaisms; all is rustic and pastoral, but with the rusticity and pastoralness of every day.
We are in the midst of one of the wealthiest and best cultivated regions of France moreover, and, when we penetrate below the surface, we find that in manner and customs, as well as dress and outward appearance, the peasant and agricultural population, generally, differ no little from their remote country-people, the Bretons. In this famous cheese-making country, the "Fromage de Brie" being the speciality of these rich dairy farms, there is no superstition, hardly a trace of poverty, and little that can be called poetic. The people are wealthy, laborious, and progressive. The farmers' wives, however hard they may work at home, wear the smartest of Parisian bonnets and gowns when paying visits. I was going to say when at church, but nobody does go here!
It is a significant fact that in the fairly well to do educated district, where newspapers are read by the poorest, where well-being is the rule, poverty the exception, the church is empty on Sunday, and the priest's authority is nil. The priests may preach against abstinence from church in the pulpits, and may lecture their congregation in private, no effect is thereby produced. Church-going has become out of date among the manufacturers of Brie cheese. They amuse themselves on Sundays by taking walks with their children, the pater-familias bathes in the river, the ladies put on their gala dresses and pay visits, but they omit their devotions.
Some of these tenant-farmers, many of the farms being hired on lease, possessors of small farms hiring more land, are very rich, and one of our neighbours whose wealth had been made by the manufacture of Brie cheese lately gave his daughter a 100,000 francs, L40,000, as a dowry. The wedding breakfast took place at the Grand Hotel, Paris, and a hundred guests were invited to partake of a sumptuous collation. But in spite of fine clothes and large dowries, farmers' wives and daughters still attend to the dairies, and, when they cease to do so, doubtless farming in Seine et Marne will no longer be the prosperous business we find it. It is delightful to witness the wide-spread well-being of this highly-farmed region.
"There is no poverty here," my host tells me, "and this is why life is so pleasant."
True enough, wherever you go, you find well-dressed, contented-looking people, no rags, no squalor, no pinched want. Poverty is an accident of rare occurrence, and not a normal condition, everyone being able to get plenty of work and good pay. The habitual look of content written upon every face is very striking. It seems as if in this land of Goshen, life were no burden, but matter of satisfaction only, if not of thankfulness. Class distinction can hardly be said to exist; there are employers and employed, masters and servants, of course, but the line of demarcation is lightly drawn, and we find an easy familiarity wholly free from impoliteness, much less vulgarity, existing between them.
That automatic demureness characterizing English servants in the presence of their employers, is wholly unknown here. There are households with us where the servants might all be mutes for any signs of animation they give, but here they take part in what is going on, and exchange a word and a smile with every member of the household, never dreaming that it should be otherwise. One is struck too here by the good looks, intelligence, and trim appearance of the children, who, it is plain, are well cared for. The houses have vines and sweet peas on the wall, flowers in the window, and altogether a look of comfort and ease found nowhere in Western France. The Breton villages are composed of mere hovels, where pigs, cows, and poultry live in close proximity to their owners, a dung-hill stands before every front door, and, to get indoors and out, you have always to cross a pool of liquid manure. Here order and cleanliness prevail, with a diffusion of well-being, hardly, I should say, to be matched out of America.
Travellers who visit France again and again, as much out of sympathy with its people's institutions as from a desire to see its monuments and outward features, will find ample to reward them in Seine et Marne. On every side we have evidence of the tremendous natural resources and indefatigable laboriousness of the people. There is one point here, as elsewhere in France, which strikes an agriculturist with astonishment, and that is the abundance of trees standing amid cornfields and miscellaneous crops, also the interminable plantation of poplars that can be seen on every side, apparently without any object. But the truth is, the planting of apple and pear trees in fields is no extravagance, rather an economy, the fruit they produce exceeding in value the corn they damage, whilst the puzzling line of poplars growing beside canals and rivers is the work of the Government, every spare bit of ground belonging to the State being planted with them for the sake of the timber. The crops are splendid partly owing to the soil, and partly to the advanced system of agriculture. You may see exposed for sale, in little towns, the newest American agricultural implements, whilst the great diversity of products speaks volumes for the enterprise of the farmers.
As you stroll along, now climbing, now descending this pleasantly undulated country, you may see growing in less than an acre, a patch of potatoes here, a vineyard there, on one side a bit of wheat, oats, rye, and barley, with fruit-trees casting abundant shadow over all; on the other Indian corn, clover and mangel-wurzel in the green state, recently planted for autumn fodder; further on a poppy field, three weeks ago in full flower, now having full pods ready for gathering—the opium poppy being cultivated for commerce here—all these and many more are found close together, and near them many a lovely little glen, copse, and ravine, recalling Scotland and Wales, while the open hill-sides show broad belts of pasture, corn and vineyard. You may walk for miles through what seems one vast orchard, only, instead of turf, rich crops are growing under the trees. This is indeed the orchard of France, on which we English folk largely depend for our summer fruits. A few days ago the black-currant trees were being stripped for the benefit of Parisian lovers of cassis, a liqueur in high repute.
We encounter on our walks carts laden with plums packed in baskets and barrels on their way to Covent Garden. Later on, it will be the peach and apricot crops that are gathered for exportation. Later still, apples, walnuts, and pears; the village not far from our own sends fruit to the Paris markets valued at 1,000,000 francs annually, and the entire valley of the Marne is unequalled throughout France for fruitfulness and abundance. But the traveller must settle down in some delicious retreat in the valley of the Marne to realize the interest and charm of such a country as this. And he must above all things be a fairly good pedestrian, for, though a land of Goshen flowing with milk and honey, it is not a land of luxuries, and carriages, good, bad, or indifferent, are difficult to be got. A countless succession of delightful prospects is offered to the persevering explorer, who, each day, strikes out in an entirely different direction. I have always been of opinion that the best way to see a country is to make a halt in some good central point for weeks at a time, and from thence "excursionize." By these means, much fatigue is avoided, and the two chief drawbacks to the pleasure of travel, namely, hotels and perpetual railway travel, are avoided as much as possible.
Seine et Marne, if not one of the most picturesque regions in France, abounds in those quiet charms that grow upon the sympathetic traveller. It is not a land of marvels and pictorial attractions like Brittany. There is no costume, no legendary romance, no stone array of Carnac to entice the stranger, but, on the other hand, the lover of nature, in her more subdued aspects, and the archaeologist also, will find ample to repay them. It is not my intention to give a history of the ancient cities and towns visited during my stay, or, indeed, to offer an itinerary, or any other kind of information so amply provided for us in English and foreign Handbooks. My object is merely to relate my own experiences in this and other Eastern regions of France, for, if these are not worth having, no rechauffe_ of facts, gleaned here and there, can be so; and I also intend only to quote other authors when they are inaccessible to the general reader.
With regard, therefore, to the history of the departement of Seine et Marne, constructed, in 1790, from the province of Brie, also from the Ile de France, and the so called Gatinois Francais, I will say a few words. Although it only boasts of two important historical monuments, namely, the Cathedral of Meaux and the Chateau of Fontainebleau; scattered about the country are noteworthy remains of different epochs, Celtic, Roman, Merovingian, mediaeval; none, perhaps, of paramount importance, but all interesting to the archaeologist and the artist. Such remains as those of the Merovingian crypt at Jouarre, and the various monuments of Provins, well repay the traveller who visits these places on purpose, whilst, as he zig-zags here and there, he will find many a village church of quaint exterior and rich Gothic decoration within. Fontainebleau, being generally included in a visit to Paris, I do not attempt to describe, but prefer to lead the traveller a little off the ordinary track, on which, indeed, he wants no guide but Murray and Joanne.
My rallying point was a pleasant country-house at Couilly, offering easy opportunity of studying agriculture and rural life, as well as of making excursions by road and rail. Couilly itself is charming. The canal, winding its way between thick lines of poplar trees towards Meaux, you may follow in the hottest day of summer without fatigue. The river, narrow and sleepy, yet so picturesquely curling amid green slopes and tangled woods, is another delightful stroll; then there are broad, richly wooded hills rising above these, and shady side-paths leading from hill to valley, with alternating vineyards, orchards, pastures, and cornfields on either side. Couilly lies in the heart of the cheese-making country, part of the ancient province of Brie from which this famous cheese is named.
The Comte of Brie became part of the French kingdom on the occasion of the marriage of Jeanne of Navarre with Philip-le-Bel in 1361, and is as prosperous as it is picturesque. It also possesses historic interest. Within a stone's throw of our garden wall once stood a famous convent of Bernardines, called Pont-aux-Dames. Here Madame du Barry, the favourite of Louis XV., was exiled after his death; on the outbreak of the Revolution, she flew to England, having first concealed, somewhere in the Abbey grounds, a valuable case of diamonds. The Revolution went on its way, and Madame du Barry might have ended her unworthy career in peace had not a sudden fit of cupidity induced her to return to Couilly when the Terror was at its acme, in quest of her diamonds. The Committee of Public Safety got hold of Madame du Barry, and she mounted the guillotine in company of her betters, showing a pusillanimity that befitted such a career. What became of the diamonds, history does not say. The Abbey of Pont-aux-Dames has long since been turned to other purposes, but the beautiful old-fashioned garden still remains as it was.
Couilly, like most of the ancient villages in Seine et Marne, possesses a church of an early period, though unequal in interest to those of its neighbours. It is also full of reminiscences of the last Franco-German war. My friend's house was occupied by the German commander and his staff, who, however, committed no depredations beyond carrying off the bed-quilts and blankets, a pardonable offence considering the excessive cold of that terrible winter.
Not far off, on a high hill, is a farm-house, known as the Maison Blanche, in which Jules Favre gave utterance to the memorable words: "Not an inch of our territory—not a stone of our fortresses," when in conference with Bismarck and Moltke in 1870. It is said that a peasant who showed them the way meditated assassinating all three, and was only prevented by the fear of his village being made the scene of vengeance. Already, German tourists are finding their way back to these country resorts, and the sound of the German tongue is no longer unbearable to French ears. It is to be hoped that this outward reconciliation of the two nationalities may mean something deeper, and that the good feeling may increase.
The diligence passes our garden gate early in the morning, and in an hour and a half takes us to Meaux, former capital of the province of La Brie, bishopric of the famous Bossuet, and one of the early strongholds of the Reformation. The neighbouring country, pays Meldois as it is called, is one vast fruit and vegetable garden, bringing in enormous returns. From our vantage ground, for, of course, we get outside the vehicle, we survey the shifting landscape, wood and valley and plain, soon seeing the city with its imposing Cathedral, flashing like marble, high above the winding river and fields of green and gold on either side. I know nothing that gives the mind an idea of fertility and wealth more than this scene, and it is no wonder that the Prussians, in 1871, here levied a heavy toll; their sojourn at Meaux having cost the inhabitants not less than a million and a half of francs. All now is peace and prosperity, and here, as in the neighbouring towns, rags, want, and beggary are not found. The evident well-being of all classes is delightful to behold.
Meaux, with its shady boulevards and pleasant public gardens, must be an agreeable place to live in, nor would intellectual resources be wanting. We strolled into the spacious town library, open, of course, to all strangers, and could wish for no better occupation than to con the curious old books and the manuscripts that it contains. One incident amused me greatly. The employe, having shown me the busts adorning the walls of the principal rooms, took me into a side closet, where, ignominiously put out of sight, were the busts of Charles the Tenth and Louis-Philippe.
"But," said our informant, "we have more busts in the garret. The Emperor Napoleon III., the Empress and the Prince Imperial!"
Naturally enough, on the proclamation of the Republic, these busts were considered at least supererogatory, and it is to be hoped they will stay where they are. The Eveche, or Bishop's Palace, is the principal sight at Meaux. It is full of historic associations, besides being very curious in itself. Here have slept many noteworthy personages, Louis XVI. and Marie Antoinette when on their return from Varennes, June 24th, 1791, Napoleon in 1814, Charles X. in 1828, later, General Moltke in 1870, who said upon that occasion,
"In three days, or a week at most, we shall be in Paris;" not counting on the possibilities of a siege.
The room occupied by the unfortunate Louis XVI and his little son, still bears the name of "La Chambre du Roi," and cannot be entered without sadness. The gardens, designed by Le Notre, are magnificent and very quaint, as quaint and characteristic, perhaps, as any of the same period; a broad, open, sunny flower-garden below, above terraced walks so shaded with closely-planted plane trees that the sun can hardly penetrate them on this July day. These green walks, where the nightingale and the oriole were singing, were otherwise as quiet as the Eveche itself; but the acme of quiet and solitude was only to be found in the avenue of yews, called Bossuet's Walk. Here it is said the great orator used to pace backwards and forwards when composing his famous discourses, like another celebrated French writer, Balzac, wholly secluding himself from the world whilst thus occupied. A little garden-house in which he ate and slept leads out of this delightful walk, a cloister of greenery, the high square-cut walls of yew shutting out everything but the sky. What would some of us give for such a retreat as this! an ideal of perfect tranquillity and isolation from the outer world that might have satisfied the soul of Schopenhauer himself.
But the good things of life are not equally divided. The present Bishop, an octogenarian, who has long been quite blind, would perhaps prefer to hear more echoes from without. It happened that in one party was a little child of six, who, with the inquisitiveness of childhood, followed the servant in-doors, whilst the rest waited at the door for permission to visit the palace. "I hear the footsteps of a child" said the old man, and bidding his young visitor approach, he gave him sugar-plums, kisses, and finally his blessing. Very likely the innocent prattling of the child was as welcome to the old man as the sweetmeats to the little one on his knee.
The terraces of the Episcopal garden cross the ancient walls of the city, and underneath the boulevards afford a promenade almost as pleasant. It must be admitted that much more pains are taken in France to embellish provincial towns with shady walks and promenades than in England. The tiniest little town in Seine et Marne has its promenades, that is to say, an open green space and avenues with benches for the convenience of passers-by. We cannot, certainly, sit out of doors as much as our French neighbours in consequence of our more changeable climate, but might not pleasant public squares and gardens, with bands playing gratuitously on certain evenings in the week in country towns, entice customers from the public-house? The traveller is shown the handsome private residences of rich Meldois, where in the second week of September, 1870, were lodged the Emperor of Germany, the Prince Frederick Charles, and Prince Bismarck. Meaux, if one of the most prosperous, is also one of the most liberal of French cities, and has been renowned for its charity from early times. In the thirteenth century there were no fewer than sixty Hotels-Dieu, as well as hospitals for lepers in the diocese, and at the present day it is true to its ancient traditions, being abundantly supplied with hospitals, &c.
Half-an-hour from Meaux by railway is the pretty little town of La Ferte-sous-Jouarre, coquettishly perched on the Marne, and not yet rendered unpoetic by the hum and bustle of commerce. Here, even more than at Meaux, the material well-being of all classes is especially striking. You see the women sitting in their little gardens at needle-work, the children trotting off to school, the men busied in their respective callings, but all as it should be, no poverty, no dirt, no drunkenness, no discontent; cheerfulness, cleanliness, and good clothes are evidently everybody's portion. Yet it is eminently a working population; there are no fashionable ladies in the streets, no nursery-maids with over-dressed charges on the public walks; the men wear blue blouses, the women cotton gowns, all belonging to one class, and have no need to envy any others.
Close to the railway-station is a little house, where I saw an instance of the comfort enjoyed by these unpretentious citizens of this thrifty little town. The landlord, a particularly intelligent and well-mannered person, was waiting upon his customers in a blue cotton coat, and the landlady was as busy as could be in the kitchen. Both were evidently accustomed to plenty of hard work, yet when she took me over the house in order to show her accommodation for tourists, I found their own rooms furnished with Parisian elegance. There were velvet sofas and chairs, white-lace curtains, polished floors, mirrors, hanging wardrobes, a sumptuous little bassinette for baby, and adjoining, as charming a room for their elder daughter—a teacher in a day-school—as any heiress to a large fortune could desire. This love of good furniture and in-door comfort generally, seemed to me to speak much, not only for the taste, but the moral tone of the family. Evidently to these good people the home meant everything dearest to their hearts. You would not find extravagance in food or dress among them, or most likely any other but this: they work hard, they live frugally, but, when the day's toil is done, they like to have pretty things around them, and not only to repose but to enjoy.
La Ferte-sous-Jouarre is the seat of a large manufacture of millstones, which are exported to all parts of the world, and it is a very thriving little place. Large numbers of Germans are brought hither by commerce, and now live again among their French neighbours as peacefully as before the war. The attraction for tourists is, however, the twin-town of Jouarre, reached by a lovely drive of about an hour from the little town. Leaving the river, you ascend gradually, gaining at every step a richer and wider prospect; below the blue river, winding between green banks, above a lofty ridge of wooded hill, with hamlets dotted here and there amid the yellow corn and luxuriant foliage. It is a bit of Switzerland, and has often been painted by French artists. I can fancy no more attractive field for a landscape-painter than this, who, provided he could endure the perpetual noise of the stone-yards, would find no lack of creature comforts.
The love of flowers and flower-gardens, so painfully absent in the West of France, is here conspicuous. There are flowers everywhere, and some of the little gardens give evidence of great skill and care. Jouarre is perched upon an airy green eminence, a quiet old-world town, with an enormous convent in the centre, where some scores of cloistered nuns have shut themselves up for the glory of God. There they live, these Bernardines, as they are called, as much in prison as if they were the most dangerous felons ever brought to justice; and a prison-house, indeed, the convent looks with its high walls, bars, and bolts. I had a little talk with the sister in charge of the porter's lodge, and she took me into the church, pointing to the high iron rails barring off the cloistered nuns, with that imbecile self-satisfaction as much inseparable from her calling as her unwholesome dress.
"There is one young English lady here," she said, "formerly a Protestant; she is twenty-one, and only the other day took the perpetual vows."
I wondered, as I looked up at the barred windows, how long this kind of Suttee would be permitted in happy France, or, indeed, in any other country, and whether in the life-time of that foolish English girl the doors would be opened and she would be compelled to live and labour in the world like any other rational being. This dreary prison-house, erected not in the interests of justice and society, but in order to pacify cupidity on one side and fanaticism on the other, afforded a painful contrast to the cheerful, active life outside.
Close to the convent is one of the most curious monuments in the entire department of Seine et Marne, namely, the famous Merovingian Crypt, described by French archaeologists in the "Bulletin Monumental" and elsewhere. It is well known that during the Merovingian epoch, and under Charlemagne, long journeys were often undertaken in order to procure marbles and other building materials for the Christian churches. Thus only can we account for the splendid columns of jasper, porphyry, and other rare marbles of which this crypt is composed. The capitals of white marble, in striking contrast to the deep reds, greens, and other colours of the columns, are richly carved with acanthus leaves, scrolls, and other classic patterns, without doubt the whole having originally decorated some Pagan temple. The chapel containing the crypt is said to have been founded in the seventh century, and speaks much for the enthusiasm and artistic spirit animating its builders. There is considerable elegance in these arches, also in the sculptured tombs of different epochs, which, like the crypt, have been preserved so wonderfully until the present time. Other archaeological treasures are here, notably the so-called "Pierre des Sonneurs de Jouarre," or Stone of the Jouarre Bell-ringers, a quaint design representing two bell-ringers at their task, with a legend underneath, dating from the fourteenth century.
It must be mentioned that the traveller's patience may undergo a trial here. When I arrived at Jouarre, M. le Cure and the sacristan were both absent, and as no one else possessed the key of the crypt, my chance of seeing it seemed small. However, some one obligingly set out on a voyage of discovery, and finally the sacristan's wife was found in a neighbouring harvest-field, and she bustled up, delighted to show everything; amongst other antiquities some precious skulls and bones of Saints are kept under lock and key in the sacristy, and only exposed on fete days.
In the middle ages, Jouarre possessed an important abbey, which was destroyed during the Great Revolution. There are also in a lovely little island, in the river close to the town, remains of a feudal castle where Louis XVI. and Marie Antoinette halted on their way to Paris after their capture at Varennes. No one, however, need to have archaeological tastes in order to visit these little towns; alike scenery and people are charming, and the tourist is welcomed as a guest rather than a customer. But whether at Jouarre, or anywhere else, he who knows most will see most, every day the dictum of the great Lessing being illustrated in travel: "Wer viel weisst hat viel zu sorgen—" "Who knows much has much to look after." The mere lover of the picturesque, who cares nothing for French history, literature, and institutions, old or new, will get a superb landscape here, and nothing more.
Our resting place at Couilly, where, sheltered by acacia trees, we hardly feel the tropical heat of July, is an admirable starting point for excursions, each interesting in a different way. The striking contrast with the homely ease and well to do terre-a-terre about us is the princely chateau of the Rothschilds at Ferrieres, which none should miss seeing on any account whatever. With princely liberality also, Baron Rothschild admits anyone to his fairy-land who takes the trouble to write for permission, and however much we may have been thinking of King Solomon, Haroun al Raschid, and the thousand and one nights, we shall not be disappointed. The very name of Rothschild fills us with awe and bewilderment! We prepare ourselves to be dazzled with gold and gems, to tread on carpets gorgeous as peacock's tails, softer than eider-down, to pass through jasper and porphyry columns into regal halls where the acme of splendour can go no farther, where the walls are hung with rich tapestries, where every chair looks like a throne, and where on all sides mirrors reflect the treasures collected from different parts of the world, and we are not disappointed.
Quitting the railway at the cheerful and wealthy little town of Lagny, we drive past handsome country-houses, and well-kept flower-gardens, then gradually ascend a road winding amid hill and valley to the chateau, a graceful structure in white marble, or so it seems, proudly commanding the wide landscape. The flower-gardens are a blaze of colours, and the orange trees give delicious fragrance as we ascend the terrace, ascend being hardly the word applicable to steps sloping so easily upwards, so nicely adjusted to the human foot that climbing Mont Blanc, under the same circumstances, would be accomplished without fatigue. It is impossible to give any idea of the different kinds of magnificence that greet us on every side, now a little Watteau-like boudoir, having for background sky-blue satin and roses; now a dining-hall, sombre, gorgeous, and majestic as that of a Spanish palace; now we are transported to Persia, China, and Japan, the next we find ourselves amid unspeakable treasures of Italian and other marbles.
To come down to practical details, it might be suggested to the generous owner of this noble treasure-home of art that the briefest possible catalogue of his choicest treasures would unspeakably oblige his visitors. There is hardly a piece of furniture that is not interesting, alike from an historic and artistic point of view, whilst some are chefs-d'oeuvre both in design and execution, and dazzlingly rich in material. Among these may be mentioned a pair of chimney ornaments, thickly hung with pendants of precious stones, a piano—which belonged to Marie Antoinette—the case of which is formed of tortoiseshell, richly decorated with gold; an inlaid cabinet, set with emeralds, sapphires, and other jewels; another composed of precious stones; chairs and couches crowned with exquisite tapestry of the Louis Quinze period; some rare specimens of old cloisonne work, also of Florentine mosaics—these forming a small part of this magnificent museum.
The striking feature is the great quantity and variety of rich marbles in every part. One of the staircases is entirely formed of different kinds of rare marble, the effect being extra-ordinarily imposing. Elsewhere, a room is divided by Corinthian columns of jasper and porphyry, and on every side are displayed a wealth and splendour in this respect quite unique. Without doubt, nothing lends such magnificence to interiors as marbles, but they require the spaciousness and princeliness of such a chateau to be displayed to advantage.
Next in importance, as a matter of mere decoration, must be cited the tapestries of which there is a rare and valuable collection, chiefly in the hall, so called, where they are arrayed about the running gallery surmounting the pictures. What this hall must be worth would perhaps sound fabulous on paper, but it is here that some of the most precious treasures are found; cabinets of ivory, ebony, gems, gold, and silver, and the pictures alone represent a princess's dowry. Examples of some of the greatest masters are here: Velasquez, Rembrandt, Rubens, Claude Lorraine, the Caracci, Bordone, Reynolds, lastly among moderns, Ingres and Hippolyte Flandrin. Much might be said about these pictures, if space permitted, but they alone are worth making the journey from Paris or Couilly to see.
We find a very pleasing Murillo and some exquisite little specimens of the early German school in other parts of the chateau, although the gems of the collection are undoubtedly the Bordones, Rembrandts, and Reynoldses. But the creme de la creme of Baron Rothschild's treasures is not to be found in this sumptuous hall, in spite of tapestries, pictures, marbles and rare furniture, nor in the state salon, but in the dining-room, a marvellously rich and gorgeous apartment, where the wealth of gold and splendid colours is toned down, and the eye is rather refreshed than dazzled by the whole. On the walls, reaching from base to ceiling, are hung a series of paintings on leather, known as the Cuirs de Cordoue, leather paintings of Cordova. They are historic and allegorical subjects, and are painted in rich colours with a great abundance of gold on a dark background, the general effect being that of a study in gold and brown.
As good luck would have it, immediately after my visit to Ferrieres, I happened to hear of the Baron Davillier's learned little treatise on this ancient leather-work, or Guadamaciles, variously called cuir d'or, cuirs dores, cuirs basanes, &c. The history of these artistic varieties is so curious, that I will give it in as few words as possible.
Guadamacil, a Spanish word, signifying painted leather, is supposed to have its origin in the city of Ghadames, Sahara, where M. Duveyrier the eminent French explorer, was making scientific inquiries in 1860. The Kadi knowing M. Duveyrier's interest in all that concerned the history of this city in the desert, drew his attention to the following passage in the geographical work of a learned Tunisian, dating from the sixth century of the Hegira, that is to say, the twelfth of our era. "Ghadames—from this city come the painted leathers or Ghadamesien." M. Duveyrier accepted this etymology of the word as the most natural, seeing that the Moors of Spain, and especially of Cordova, had constant intercourse with the inhabitants of North Africa, and would naturally receive these with other artistic curiosities. The Arab dictionary of Freytag confirms M. Duveyrier's etymology, the author thus describing Ghadames—"Nomen oppidi in Africa, unde pelles gudsamiticae appellatae sunt."
Whatever its origin, we find the fabrication of these guadamaciles very flourishing at Cordova in the sixteenth century. The preparation of sheep and goat-skins for artistic purposes was a source of considerable commercial wealth to this city, and they were largely exported to various parts of Europe and India. A writer of that period describes the glowing effect of the Cordovan streets tapestried with the richly gilt and painted skins hung out to dry before packing; whilst Cervantes is supposed to have one in his mind, when thus describing the heroine of one of his plays, "Enter Hortigosa, wearing a guadamacile, &c." Rabelais also alludes to the subject in Pantagruel:—"De la peau de ces moutons seront faictes les beaux maroquins, lesquels on vendra pour maroquins Turquins ou de Montelimart, ou de Hespaigne."
The guadamaciles, although leather-work was fabricated in several cities of France, also of Italy and Belgium, ever remained a speciality of Spain, Seville, Barcelona, Lerida, Ciudad-Real, and Valladolid bearing the palm after Cordova. Such works are characterized by elaborateness, splendour of colour and richness of detail. The curious may consult the Recherches sur le Cuir dore, anciennement appele Cuir basane, by M. de la Queriere, also M. Jacquemart's Histoire du Mobilier, in which is found a very exact representation of a specimen, probably Italian. The art decayed in Spain after the expulsion of the Moors in 1610, but was introduced in various parts of France by some of the exiled artists, and it may be said to have died out in France about the end of the last century.
Senor Riano's handbook to the Spanish collection in the South Kensington Museum gives a list with details of the specimens there exhibited, numbering upwards of twenty panels and borders for furniture. These are chiefly seventeenth century work-tables, exceedingly interesting and valuable. All lovers of art, furniture, and decoration generally can but echo M. Davilliers' hope that the art of painting and stamping on leather may be ere long revived at Cordova.
So much for the artistic treat in store for those art-lovers who find their way to the Chateau of Ferrieres, where none will fail to add to his previous stock of knowledge. Art-lovers cannot study the exquisite design, elaborate workmanship, and splendid materials of the furniture, decoration, and general fittings up of such a palace without some sadness. How little that is new and modern can here be compared with the old, whether we regard mere carpentry detail or solidity! This is strikingly illustrated in the Japanese cloisonne work of which there are some choice specimens.
Two refinements of civilization will amuse the stranger; the first is a railway in miniature from kitchens to dining-rooms, by means of which the dishes are conveyed to the latter with the utmost possible dispatch. The temper indeed of these happy diners should be ineffably serene, considering that they can never be ruffled by soups or fish coming to table one degree less hot than the most epicurean palate could desire. Luxury can go no farther, unless, which may be invented some day, a patent appetite and digesting apparatus were supplied, enabling host and guests to sit down every day to the feasts spread before them with undiminished relish and perfect impunity.
The second amusing, or rather surprising, fact is that of the luxurious, though I venture to say somewhat floridly decorated ladies smoking room? Were we dreaming? Or was it our informant who was but half awake or in error? I believe not, and that the elegant and princely Chateau de Ferrieres thus acknowledges the fact of lady smokers!
NOISIEL: THE CITY OF CHOCOLATE.
When not disposed to go far a-field in search of pleasure or instruction, we find plenty to interest us close at hand. Even in this quiet little village there is always something going on, a fete patronale, a ball, a prize-distribution, or other local event. The Ecole Communale for both boys and girls has just closed for the holidays, so last Sunday—the season in July—the prizes were given away with much ceremony. A tent was decorated with tricolour flags, evergreens, and garlands, the village band escorted thither the Mayor and Corporation, marching them in with a spirited air, the entire community having turned out to see. I had already witnessed a prize-distribution in the heart of Anjou, but how different from this! Here at Couilly it was difficult to believe that the fashionable Parisian toilettes around us belonged to the wives of small farmers, who all the week were busy in their dairies, whilst the young ladies of all ages, from five to fifteen, their daughters, might have appeared at the Lady Mayoress's ball at Guildhall, so smart were they in their white muslin frocks and blue and pink sashes and hair-knots. A few mob-caps among the old women and blue blouses among the men were seen, but the assemblage, as a whole, might be called a fashionable one—whilst at Anjou, exactly the same class presented the homeliest appearance, all the female part of it wearing white coiffes and plain stuff gowns, the men blue blouses and sabots. Nor was the difference less striking in other respects. These sons and daughters of rich tenant-farmers, peasant proprietors, or even day-labourers, are far ahead of the young people in Anjou, and each would be considered a wonder in benighted Brittany. They are, in fact, quite accomplished, not only learning singing, drawing and other accomplishments, but are able to take part in dramatic entertainments. Two performances were given by the boys, two by the girls, a little play being followed by a recitation; and I must say I never heard anything of the kind in a village-school in England.
These children acquitted themselves of their parts remarkably well, especially the girls, and their accuracy, pure accent, and delivery generally, spoke volumes for the training they had received; of awkwardness there was not a trace. Of course there were speeches from the Mayor, M. le Cure, and others, also music and singing, and a large number of excellent books were distributed, each recipient being at the same time crowned with a wreath of artificial flowers.
It is to be hoped that ere many years, thanks to the new law enforcing compulsory education, the excellent education these children receive will be the portion of every boy and girl in France, and that an adult unable to read and write—the rule, not the exception, among the rural population in Brittany—will be unheard of. A friend of mine from Nantes recently took with her to Paris a young Breton maidservant, who had been educated by the "Bonnes Soeurs," that is to say the nuns. What was the poor girl's astonishment to find that in Paris everybody was so far accomplished as to be able to read and write? Her surprise would have been greater still, had she witnessed the acquirements of these little Couilly girls, many of them, like herself, daughters of small peasant farmers.
It must be mentioned, for the satisfaction of those who regard the progress of education with some concern, that the elegant bonnets and dresses I speak of are laid aside on week days, and that nowhere in France do people work harder than here. But when not at work they like to wear good clothes and read the newspapers as well as their neighbours. Take our laundress, for instance, an admirable young woman, who gets up clothes to perfection, and who on Sunday exchanges her cotton gown and apron for the smartest of Parisian costumes. The amount of underclothes these countrywomen possess is sometimes enormous, and they pride themselves upon the largest possible quantity, a great part of which is of course laid by. They count their garments not by dozens but by scores, and can thus afford to wait for the quarterly washing-day, as they often do. It must be also mentioned that cleanliness is uniformly found throughout these flourishing villages, and, in most, hot and cold public baths. Dirt is rare—I might almost say unknown—also rags, neither of which as yet we have seen throughout our long walks and drives, except in the case of a company of tramps we encountered one day. Drunkenness is also comparatively absent, in some places we might say absolutely.
As we make further acquaintance with these favoured regions, we might suppose that here, at least, the dreams of Utopians had come true, and that poverty, squalor, and wretchedness were banished for ever. The abundant crops around us are apportioned out to all, and the soil, which, if roughly cultivated according to English notions, yet bears marvellously, is not the heritage of one or two, but of the people. The poorest has his bit of land, to which he adds from time to time by the fruit of his industry, and though tenant-farming is carried on largely, owing to the wealth and enterprize of the agricultural population, the tenant-farmers almost always possess land of their own, and they hire more in order to save money for future purchases. Of course they could only make tenant-farming pay by means of excessive economy and laboriousness, as the rents are high, but in these respects they are not wanting.
The fertility of the soil is not more astonishing than the variety of produce we find here, though pasturage and cheese-making are their chief occupations, and fruit crops are produced in other parts. We find, as has been before mentioned, fruit-trees everywhere, corn, fruit, and vegetables all growing with unimaginable luxuriance. The pastures are also very fine, but we see no cattle out to graze; the harvest work requires all hands, and, as there are no fences between field and meadow, there is no one to tend them. The large heap of manure being dried up by the sun in the midst of the farm-yard, has a look of unthriftiness, whilst the small, dark, and ill-ventilated dairies make us wonder that the manufacture of the famous Brie cheese should be the profitable thing it is. At one farm we visited, we saw thirty-six splendid Normandy cows, the entire milk produce of which was used for cheese-making. Yet nothing could be worse than the dairy arrangements from a hygienic point of view, and the absolute cleanliness requisite for dairy work was wanting. These Brie cheeses are made in every farm, small or great, and large quantities are sent to the Meaux market on Saturdays, where the sale alone reaches the sum of five or six millions of francs yearly. The process is a very simple one, and is of course perpetually going on.
Our hostess, at one of the larger and more prosperous of these farms, showed us everything, and regaled us abundantly with the fresh milk warm from the cow. Here we saw an instance of the social metamorphosis taking place in these progressive districts. The mistress of the house, a bright clever woman, occupied all day with the drudgery of the farm-house, is fairly educated; and, though now neatly dressed in plain cotton gown, on Sunday dresses like any other lady for the promenade. Her mother, still clinging to the past custom, appeared in short stuff petticoat, wooden shoes, and yellow-handkerchief wrapped round her head; while the children, who, in due time, will be trained to toil like their neighbours, are now being well taught in the village school.
These people are wealthy, and may be taken as types of the farming class here, though many of the so called cultivateurs, or proprietors, farming their own land, live in much easier style; the men managing the business, the ladies keeping the house, and the work of the farm being left to labourers. The rent of good land is about fifty shillings an acre, and wages, in harvest time, four francs with board. The farms, while large in comparison with anything found in Brittany and Anjou, are small, measured by our scale, being from fifty to two or three hundred acres.
Steam-threshing has long been in use here; but, of course, not generally, as the smaller patches of corn only admit of the old system; and the corn is so ripe that it is often threshed on the field immediately after the cutting; the harvesting process is rapid; we often see only one or two labourers, whether men or women, on a single patch. But there is no waiting, as a rule, for fine weather to cart away the corn, and masters and men work with a will. We must, indeed, watch a harvest from beginning to end to realise the laboriousness of a farmer's life here. Upon one occasion, when visiting a farm of a hundred and thirty acres, we found the farmer and his mother, rich people, both hard at work in the field, the former casting away straw—the corn being threshed by machinery on the field—the latter tying it up.
The look of cheerfulness animating all faces was delightful to behold. The farmer's countenance beamed with satisfaction, and, one may be sure, not without good cause. The farmhouse and buildings are spacious and handsome, and, as is generally the case here, were surrounded by a high wall, having a large court in the centre, where a goodly number of geese, turkeys, and poultry were disporting themselves. There we found only a few cows, but they were evidently very productive from the quantity of cheeses found in the dairy.[Footnote: The curious in agriculture never need fear to ask a question or two of these flourishing farmers and farmeresses of Seine et Marne. Busy as they are, they are never too busy to be courteous, and are always ready to show any part of the premises to strangers.]
Sheep are not kept here largely, and grazing bullocks still less. The farmer, therefore, relies chiefly on his dairy, next on his corn and fruit crops, and, as bad seasons are rare, both these seldom fail him. But these pleasant villages have generally some other interest besides their rich harvest and picturesque sites. In some of the smallest, you may find exquisite little churches, such as La Chapelle-sur-Crecy, a veritable cathedral in miniature. Crecy was once an important place with ninety-nine towers and double ramparts, traces of which still remain.
A narrow stream runs at the back of the town, and quaint enough are the little houses perched beside it, each with its garden and tiny drawbridge, drawn at night, the oddest sights of which a sketcher might make something. A sketcher, indeed, must be a happy person here, so many quiet subjects offering themselves at every turn. Many of these village churches date from the thirteenth century, and are alike picturesque within and without, their spires and gabled towers giving these leading characters to the landscape. Nowhere in France do you find prettier village churches, not a few ranking among the historic monuments of the country. Here and there are chateaux with old-fashioned gardens and noble avenues, and we have only to ask permission at the porter's lodge, to walk in and enjoy them at leisure.
In one of these the lady of the house, who was sitting out of doors, kindly beckoned us to enter, and we had the pleasure of listening, under some splendid oaks, to the oriole's song, and of seeing a little cluster of Eucalyptus trees, two surprises we had not looked for. The oriole, a well known and beautiful American bird, also a songster that may be compared to the nightingale, is indeed no stranger here, and, having once heard and seen him, you cannot mistake him for any other bird. His song is an invariable prognostic of rain, as we discover on further acquaintance.
The Eucalyptus Globulus, or blue gum tree, a native of Australia, and now so successfully acclimatized in Algeria, the Cape, the Riviera, and other countries, is said to flourish in the region of the olive only; but we were assured by the lady of the house that it bears the frost of these northern regions. I confess I thought her plantations looked rather sickly, and considering that the climate is like that of Paris, subject to short spells of severe cold in winter and sudden changes, I doubt much in the experiment. But the health-giving, fever-destroying Eucalyptus is not needed in this well-wooded healthy country, and the splendid foliage of acacia, walnut, oaks, and birch leaves nothing to desire either in the matter of shade or ornament. A lover of trees, birds, and whispering breezes will say that here at least is a corner of the Happy Fields of Homer, or the Islands of the Blest described by Hesiod.
Nowhere is summer to be more revelled in, more amply tasted, than in these rustic villages, where creature comforts yet abound, and nowhere is the dolce far niente so easily induced. Why should we be at the trouble of undertaking a hot, dusty railway journey in search of Gaelic tombs, Gothic churches, or Merovingian remains when we have the essence of deliciousness at our very door?—waving fields of ripe corn, amid which the reapers in twos and threes are at work—picturesque figures that seemed to have walked out of Millet's canvas—lines of poplars along the curling river, beyond hills covered with woods, a clustering village, or a chateau, here and there. This is the picture, partially screened by noble acacia trees, that I have from my window, accompanied by the music of waving barley and wheat, dancing leaves, and chaffinches, tame as canaries, singing in the branches.
About a mile off is the little village of Villiers, which is even prettier than our own, and which of course artists have long ago found out. The wayside inn near the bridge, crossing the little river Morin, bears witness to the artistic popularity of this quiet spot. The panels of the parlour are covered with sketches, some in oil, some in water-colour, souvenirs with which visitors have memorialized their stay. Some of these hasty effects are very good, and the general effect is heightened by choice old pottery, tastefully arranged above. Villiers-sur-Morin would be an admirable summer resort for an artist fond of hanging woods, running streams, and green pastures, and a dozen more possessing the same attraction lie close at hand.
But, though within so easy a distance of Paris, life is homely, and fastidious travellers must keep to the beaten tracks and high roads where good hotels are to be found. When he goes into the by-ways, a way-side inn is all that he must expect, and, if there is no diligence, a lift in the miller's or baker's cart; the farmers' wives driving to market with their cheese and butter are always willing to give the stranger a seat, but money must not be offered in return for such obligingness. We must never forget that, if these country folks are laborious, and perhaps sordid, in their thriftiness, they are proud, and refuse to be paid for what costs them nothing. The same characteristic is very generally found in France.
Fishing is the principal amusement here, and shared by both sexes. What the Marne and the Morin contain in the way of booty, we hardly know; but it is certain that more cunning fish, whether perch, tench, or bream, never existed, and are not, "by hook or by crook," to be caught. Wherever we go, we find anglers sitting patiently by these lovely green banks, and certainly the mere prospect they have before them—clear water reflecting water-mill and lofty poplar trees and shelving banks now a tangle of wild flowers—is enough to make such indolence agreeable. But, after days and days of fruitless waiting for the prey that always eludes them, we do wonder at such persistence. Is nothing then ever caught in these pleasant streams, will ask the inquiring reader? Well, yes, I have seen served at table perch the size of very small herrings, which it is the French fashion to take between the fingers daintily, and, holding by head and tail, nibble as children bite an apple. Whether indeed these little fish are caught by the angler, I know not; but this is certainly the way they are eaten—if inelegant, honi soit qui mal y pense.
Next to fishing, the favourite pastime here is swimming, also indulged in largely by the gentler sex. The pedestrian, in his ramble along winding river and canal, will be sure to surprise a group of water-nymphs sporting in the water, their bathing costumes being considered quite a sufficient guarantee against ill-natured comment. The men are more careless of appearance, and, if they can get a good bathing place tolerably hidden from the world, take their bath or swim in nature's dress. In all these river-side towns and villages are public baths, swimming schools, and doubtless the prevailing love of water in these parts may partly account for the healthful looks and fine physiques of the population. In fact, people are as clean here as they are the reverse in Brittany, and the blue linen clothes, invariably worn by the men, are constantly in the wash, and are as cool, comfortable and cleanly as it is possible to conceive. English folks have yet to learn how to dress themselves healthfully and appropriately in hot weather, and here they might take a hint.
But no matter how enamoured of green fields and woodland walks, we must tear ourselves away for a day to see the famous "Chocolate city" of M. Menier, the modern marvel par excellence of the county, and, as a piece of the most perfect organization it is possible to conceive, one of the wonders of the world. M. Menier has undoubtedly arrived at making the best chocolate that ever rejoiced the palate; he has achieved far greater things than this, in giving us one of the happiest and most delightful social pictures that ever charmed the heart. Such things must be seen to be realized, but I will as briefly as possible give an account of what I saw.
Again, we make the pretty little town of Lagny our starting point, and, having passed a succession of scattered farm-houses and wide corn-fields, we come gradually upon a miniature town, built in red and white; so coquettishly, airily, daintily placed is the City of Chocolate amid orchards and gardens, that, at first sight, a spectator is inclined to take it rather for a settlement of such dreamers as assembled together at Brook Farm to poetize, philosophize, and make love, than of artizans engaged in the practical business of life. This long street of charming cottages, having gardens around and on either side, is planted with trees, so that in a few years' time it will form as pleasant a promenade as the Parisian boulevards. We pass along, admiring the abundance of flowers everywhere, and finally reach a large open square around which are a congeries of handsome buildings, all like the dwelling houses, new, cheerful, and having trees and benches in front. This is the heart of the "Cite," to be described by-and-by, consisting of Co-operative Stores, Schools, Libraries, &c.; beyond, stands the chateau of M. Menier, surrounded by gardens, and before us the manufactory. The air is here fragrant, not with roses and jessamine, but with the grateful aroma of chocolate, reminding us that we are indeed in a city, if not literally a pile, of cocoa, yet owing its origin to the products of that wonderful tree, or rather to the ingenuity by which its resources have been turned to such account.
The works are built on the river Marne, and, having seen two vast hydraulic machines, we enter a lift with the intelligent foreman deputed to act as guide, and ascend to the topmost top of the many storied, enormous building in which the cocoa berry is metamorphosed into the delicious compound known as Chocolate Menier. This is a curious experience, and the reverse of most other intellectual processes, since here, instead of mounting the ladder of knowledge gradually, we find ourselves placed on a pinnacle of ignorance, from which we descend by degrees, finding ourselves enlightened when we at last touch the ground.
Our aerial voyage accomplished, we see process the first, namely, the baking of the berry, this, of course, occupying a vast number of hands, all men, on account of the heat and laboriousness required in the operation. Descending a story, we find the cocoa berry already in a fair way to become edible, and giving out an odour something like chocolate; here the process consists in sorting and preparing the vast masses of cocoa for grinding. Lower still, we find M. Menier's great adjunct in the fabrication of chocolate, namely, sugar, coming into play, and no sooner are sugar and cocoa put together than the compound becomes chocolate in reality. Lower still, we find processes of refining and drying going on, an infinite number being required before the necessary firmness is attained. Lower still, we come to a very hot place indeed, but, like all the other vast compartments of the manufactory, as well ventilated, spacious, and airy as is possible to conceive, the workman's inconvenience from the heat being thereby reduced to a minimum.
Here it is highly amusing to watch the apparently intelligent machines which divide the chocolate into half-pound lumps, the process being accomplished with incredible swiftness. Huge masses of chocolate in this stage awaiting the final preparation are seen here and there, all destined at last to be put half a pound at a time into a little baking tin, and to be baked like a hot cross bun, the name of Menier being stamped on at the same time. A good deal of manipulation is necessary in this process; but we must go down a stage lower to see the dexterity and swiftness with which the chief manual tasks in the fabrication of chocolate are performed.
Here women are chiefly employed, and their occupation is to envelope the half-pound cakes of chocolate in three papers, first silver, next white, and finally sealing it up in the well-known yellow cover familiar to all of us. These feminine fingers work so fast, and with such marvellous precision, that, if the intricate pieces of machinery we have just witnessed seemed gifted with human intelligence and docility, on the other hand the women at work in this department appeared like animated machines; no blundering, no halting, no alteration of working pace. Their fluttering fingers, indeed, worked with beautiful promptitude and regularity, and as everybody in M. Menier's City of Chocolate is well-dressed and cheerful, there was nothing painful in the monotony of their toil or unremitting application.
On the same floor are the packing departments, where we see the cases destined for all parts of the world.
Thus quickly and easily we have descended the ladder of learning, and have acquired some faint notion of the way in which the hard, brown, tasteless cocoa berry is transformed into one of the most agreeable and wholesome compounds as yet invented for our delectation. Of course, many intermediate processes have had to be passed by, also many interesting features in the organization of the various departments; these, to be realized, must be seen.
There are one or two points, however, I will mention. In the first place, when we consider the enormous duty on sugar, and the fact that chocolate, like jam, is composed half of sugar and half of berry, we are at first at a loss to understand how chocolate-making can bring in such large returns as it must do—in the first place, to have made M. Menier a millionaire, in the second, to enable him to carry out his philanthropic schemes utterly regardless of cost. But we must remember that there is but one Chocolate Menier in the world, and that in spite of the enormous machinery at work, night and day, working day and Sunday, supply can barely keep pace with demand. A staff of night-workers are always at rest in the day-time, in order to keep the machinery going at work, and, to my regret, I learned that the work-shops are not closed on Sundays. M. Menier's work-people doubtless get ample holidays, but the one day's complete rest out of the seven, the portion of all with us, is denied them. By far the larger portion of the Chocolate Menier is consumed in France, where, as in England and America, it stands unrivalled. M. Menier may therefore be said to possess a monopoly, and, seeing how largely he lavishes his ample wealth on others, none can grudge him such good fortune.
Having witnessed the transformation of one of the most unpromising looking berries imaginable into the choicest of sweetmeats, the richest of the cups "that cheer but not inebriate;" lastly, one of the best and most nourishing of the lighter kinds of food—we have to witness a transformation more magical still, namely, the hard life of toil made easy, the drudgery of mechanical labour lightened, the existence of the human machine made hopeful, healthful, reasonable, and happy. Want, squalor, disease, and drunkenness have been banished from the City of Chocolate, and thrift, health, and prosperity reign in their stead.
Last of all, ignorance has vanished also, a thorough education being the happy portion of every child born within its precincts. Our first visit was to what is called the "Ecole Gardienne," or infant school—like the rest kept up entirely at M. Menier's expense—and herein, the grandest gift of organization is seen, perhaps, more strikingly than anywhere. These children, little trotting things from three to five years old, have a large playground, open in summer and covered in winter, and a spacious school-room, in which they receive little lessons in singing, A B C, and so on. Instead of being perched on high benches without backs, and their legs dangling, as is the case in convent schools for the poor, they have delightful little low easy-chairs and tables accommodated to their size, each little wooden chair, with backs, having seats for two, so that, instead of being crowded and disturbing each other, the children sit in couples with plenty of room and air, and in perfect physical comfort. No hollow chests, no bent backs, no crookedness here. Happy and comfortable as princes these children sit in their chairs, having their feet on the floor, and their backs where they ought to be, namely, as a support.
Leading out of the school-room are two small rooms, where we saw a pleasant sight; a dozen cots, clean and cosy as it is possible to conceive, on which rosy, sturdy boys and girls of a year old were taking their midday sleep. We next went into the girls' school, which is under the charge of a certificated mistress, and where children remain till thirteen or fourteen years of age, receiving exactly the same education as the boys, and without a fraction of cost to the parents. The course of study embraces all branches of elementary knowledge, with needlework, drawing, history, singing and book-keeping. Examinations are held and certificates of progress awarded. We found the girls taking a lesson in needle-work—the only point in which their education differs from that of the boys—and the boys at their drawing class; the school-rooms are lofty, well-aired, and admirably arranged.
Adjoining the schools is the library, open to all members of the community, and where many helps to adult study are afforded. On the other side of the pleasant green square, so invitingly planted with trees, stand the Cooperative Stores, which are, of course, an important feature in the organization of the community. Here meat, groceries, and other articles of daily domestic consumption are sold at low prices, and of the best possible quality: the membership, of course, being the privilege of the thrifty and the self-denying, who belong to the Association by payment. I did not ask if intoxicating drinks were sold on the premises, for such an inquiry would have been gratuitous. The cheerful, tidy, healthful looks of the population proclaimed their sobriety, and some excellent sirop de groseille offered me in the cottage of the foreman who acted as guide, showed that such delicious drinks are made at home as to necessitate no purchases abroad.
There is also a Savings' Bank, which all are invited to patronize; six and a half per cent being the incentive held out to those economisers on a small scale. But neither the school, nor the Co-operative Store, nor the Savings' Bank can make the working man's life what it should be without the home, and it is with the home that alike M. Menier's philanthropy and organization attain the acme. These dwellings, each block containing two, are admirably arranged, with two rooms on the ground-floor, two above, a capital cellar and office, and last, but not least, a garden. The workman pays a hundred and twenty francs, rather less than five pounds, a year for this accommodation, which it is hardly necessary to say is the portion of very few artizans in France, or elsewhere. The Cite, as it is called, being close to the works, they can go home to meals, and, though the women are largely employed in the manufactory, the home need not be neglected. It was delightful to witness my cicerone's pleasure in his home. He was a workman of superior order, and though, as he informed me, of no great education, yet possessed of literary and artistic tastes. The little parlour was as comfortable a room as any reasonable person could desire. There were books on the shelves, and pictures over the mantelpiece. Among these, were portraits of Thiers, Gambetta, and M. Menier, for all of whom their owner expressed great admiration.
"Ah!" he said, "I read the newspaper and I know a little history, but in my time education was not thought of. These children here have now the chance of being whatever they like."
He showed me his garden, every inch of which was made use of—fruit, flowers, and vegetables growing luxuriantly on this well-selected site. The abundance of flowers was particularly striking, especially to those familiar with certain districts in France, where the luxury of a flower is never indulged in; M. Menier himself must have as strong a passion for gardening as for philanthropy, judging from the enormous gardens adjoining his handsome chateau, and perhaps his love of flowers—always a most humanizing taste—has set the example. These brilliant parterres, whether seen in the vast domains of the master or the humble homesteads of the men, delightfully break the red and white uniformity of the City of Chocolate, flowers above, around, on every side. There is also a profusion of fruit and vegetables, land quite recently laid under cultivation soon yielding returns in this favoured spot.
Before quitting Noisiel we must remark that M. Menier possesses cocoa and sugar plantations in the Southern States of America, and is thus enabled to fabricate the best possible chocolate at the lowest possible price. The cocoa-berry, sugar, and essence of vanilla alone form the ingredients of this delicious compound, which for the most part is made of one quality only. The amount of water power used daily, the quantity of material consumed and chocolate manufactured, the entire consumption throughout France, all these are interesting statistics, and are found elsewhere—my object being a graphic description of M. Menier's "Chocolaterie", and nothing further. The interest to general readers and writers consists not so much in such facts as these as in the astonishing completeness of the manufactory as a piece of organization, and the great social and moral well-being of which it is made the channel. Something more than mere business talent and philanthropy is necessary to combine the material and moral forces we find at work here. M. Menier must have gone into every practical detail, not only of hygiene and domestic economy, but of education, to have put into working order so admirable a scheme as his; and by living among his work-people he is enabled to watch the result of his efforts. The handsome chateau, with its magnificent garden in close proximity to the "Cite", preaches a daily text, which we may be sure is more effective than any amount of words. By his own capacity and exertions M. Menier has realized the splendid fortune he now uses so philanthropically, and equally by this same capacity and exertion only can his working men lift themselves in the social scale. The children educated at Noisiel will have their fortune in their own hands, since in France fortune and the highest social distinctions are within reach of all; and, in thus educating her future citizens, the great chocolate manufacturer is fulfilling the part not only of a philanthropist but of a true patriot.
The French nation now recognise the fact, long since evident to outsiders, that the last great contest between France and Germany was a struggle less between two vast armed forces than between instruction and alertness on the one hand, and ignorance and indolence on the other. Now that French youth is urged and compelled to put its shoulder to the wheel, and duty before pleasure, none can despair of the future of France. Wherever I go, in whatever corner of the world I henceforth taste the renowned Chocolate Menier, I shall be reminded of something which will lend additional sweetness and flavour to it. I shall recall a community of working people whose toil is lightened and elevated, whose daily portion is made hopeful, reasonable, and happy, by an ever-active sympathy and benevolence rarely found allied. More lessons than one will be carried away by the least and most instructed visitor of the flourishing little City of Chocolate on the banks of the Marne.
Church-going in this rich country is at all times a dreary affair, but especially just now, when partly from the harvest work going on all Sunday, and partly from lack of devotion, both Catholic and Protestant places of worship are all but empty. For there is a strong Protestant element here, dating from the epoch of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, and in the neighbouring village of Quincey are a Protestant Church and school. One Sunday morning I set off with two friends to attend service in the latter, announced to take place at eleven o'clock, but on arriving found the "Temple" locked, and not a sign of any coming ceremonial. Being very hungry, after the long walk through cornfields and vineyards, I went to a little baker's shop in search of a roll, and there realized the hospitable spirit of these good Briards. The mistress of the shop very kindly invited me into a little back room, and regaled me with excellent household bread, Brie cheese, and the wine of the country, refusing to be paid for her refreshments.
This little meal finished, I rejoined my friends at the church, which was now open, and, in company of half a dozen school-children, we quietly waited to see what would eventually take place. By-and-by, one or two peasant-folks dropped in, picturesque old men and women, the latter in black and blue dresses and mob-caps. Then the schoolmaster appeared, and we were informed that it being the first Sunday in the month, the pastor had to do duty in an adjoining parish, according to custom, and that the schoolmaster would read the prayers and lessons instead. A psalm was sung, portions of Scripture and short prayers were read, another straggler or two joining the little congregation as the service went on. The schoolmaster, who officiated, played the harmonium and sang exceedingly well, finally read a brief exposition on the portion of Scripture read, whereupon after further singing we broke up.
It was pleasant to find that the children, who looked particularly intelligent, were in such good hands. These country pastors, like the priests, receive very small pay from the State. How these isolated communities can keep up their schools seems astonishing, and speaks well for the zeal animating the Protestant body in France. As all the schools are now closed in consequence of the harvest, we could not see the children at work.
In the afternoon I went to the parish church of Couilly, whilst vespers were going on. If the little Protestant assemblage I had just before witnessed was touching, this was almost painful, and might have afforded an artist an admirable subject for a picture. Sitting on a high stool, with his back to the congregation, consisting of three old women, was the priest, on either side the vergers, one in white stole, the other in purple robe and scarlet cap, all these chanting in loud monotonous tones, and of course in Latin, now and then the harmonium giving a faint accompaniment. On either side of these automatic figures were rows of little boys in scarlet and white, who from time to time made their voices heard also. As a background to this strange scene, was the loveliest little Gothic interior imaginable, the whiteness of aisle and transept being relieved by the saffron-coloured ribs of the arches and columns; the Church of Couilly being curious without and beautiful within, like many other parish churches here. After a time, one of the vergers blew out the three wax lights on a side altar, and all three retired, each scurrying away in different directions with very little show of reverence.
How different from the crowded churches in Brittany, where, whether at mass or vespers, hardly standing-room is to be found! How long Catholicism will hold its sway over the popular mind there depends, of course, greatly on the priests themselves, who, if ignorant and coarse-mannered, at least set their flocks a better example in the matter of morals than here. The less said about this subject the better; French priests are, whichever way we regard them, objects of commiseration, but there can be no doubt that the indifference shown to religion in the flourishing departement of Seine et Marne has been brought about by the priests themselves and their open disregard of decorum. Their shortcomings in this respect are not hidden, and their domestic lives an open book which all who run may read.
Some of them, however, occupy their time very harmlessly and profitably in gardening and beekeeping, their choicest fruits and vegetables, like those of their neighbours, going to England. We went one day, carrying big baskets with us, to visit the cure of a neighbouring village famous for his green-gages, and certainly the little presbytere looked very inviting with its vine-covered walls and luxuriant flower-gardens. The cure, who told us he had been gardening that morning from four till six o'clock, received us very courteously, yet in a business-like way, and immediately took us to his fruit and vegetable garden some way off. Here we found the greatest possible profusion and evidence of skilful gardening. The fruit-trees were laden, there were Alpine strawberries with their bright red fruit, currants, melons, apricots, &c., and an equal variety of vegetables. Not an inch of ground was wasted, nor were flowers wanting for adornment and the bees—splendid double sun-flowers, veritable little suns of gold, garden mallows, gladiolas and others; a score and more of hives completed the picture which its owner contemplated with natural pride.
"You have only just given your orders in time, ladies," he said; "all my green-gages are to be gathered forthwith for the English market. Ah! those English! those English! they take everything! our best fruit—and the island of Cyprus!"
Whereupon I ventured to rejoin that, at least if we robbed our French neighbours of their best fruit, our money found its way into the grower's pocket. Of course these large purchases in country places make home produce dearer for the inhabitants; but as the English agents pay a higher price than others, the peasants and farmers hail their appearance with delight. The fruit has to ripen on its way, and to enjoy a green-gage, or melon, to the full, we must taste it here. In the autumn the fine pears imported to Covent Garden from these villages sometimes fetch nine sous, four-pence halfpenny each, this being the whole-sale price. No wonder that in retail we have to pay so much.
The cure in question makes a good deal by his bees, and the honey of these parts is first-rate. On the whole, small as is their pay, these parish priests cannot be badly off, seeing that they get extra money by their garden produce, and largely, also, by baptismal and other church fees. Then of course it must be remembered that nothing is expected of them in the way of charity, as is the case with our clergy.
"Nous recevons toujours, nous ne donnons jamais," was the reply of a French bishop on being asked an alms by some benevolent lady for a protege.
Scattered throughout these fertile and prosperous regions are ancient towns, some of which are reached by separate little lines of railway, others are accessible by road only. Coulommiers is one of these, and though there is nothing attractive about it, except a most picturesque old church and a very pretty public walk by the winding river, it is worth making the two hours' drive across country for the sake of the scenery. As there is no direct communication with Couilly, and no possibility of hiring a carriage at this busy season, I gladly accepted a neighbour's offer of a seat in his "trap," a light spring-cart with capital horse. He was a tradesman of the village, and, like the rest of the world here, wore the convenient and cleanly blue cotton trousers and blue blouse of the country. The third spare seat was occupied by a neighbouring notary, the two men discussing metaphysics, literature, and the origin of things, on their way.
We started at seven o'clock in the morning, and lovely indeed looked the wide landscape in the tender light—valley, and winding river, and wooded ridge being soon exchanged for wide open spaces covered with corn and autumn crops. Farming here is carried on extensively, some of these rich farms numbering several hundred acres. The farm-house and buildings, surrounded with a high stone wall, are few and far between, and the separate crops cover much larger tracts than here. It was market-day at Coulommiers, and we passed by many farmers and farmeresses jogging to market, the latter with their fruit and vegetables, eggs and butter, in comfortable covered carts.
Going to market in France means, indeed, what it did with us a hundred years ago; yet the farmers and farmers' wives looked the picture of prosperity. In some cases, fashion had so far got the better of tradition, that the reins were handled by a smart-looking lady in hat and feathers and fashionable dress, but for the most part by toil-embrowned homely women, with a coloured handkerchief twisted round their heads and no pretention to gentility. The men, one and all, wore blue blouses, and were evidently accustomed to hard work, but for all that it was easy to see that they were possessed both of means and intelligence. Like the rest of the Briard population, they are fine fellows, tall, with regular features and frank good-humoured countenances.