In a Famous French Home

As my train drew up at the model wee station of Nohant-Vicq, I caught sight of pretty, welcoming Gabrielle in her dainty pink bodice and broad summer hat. Her glad brown eyes and friendly “ Hast thou made a good journey, my Méry ? ” were sweet indeed, after the long, solitary trip from central Italy to the heart of France. She led me past the bowing station-master to the trig dogcart awaiting us, and in a few moments we were howling along leafy lanes vociferous with singing birds. Oh, the dewy freshness of that drive, after the struggle with dust, luggage, and missed connections ! Passing the few cottages which cluster close to a tiny green, overshadowed by gigantic trees embowering a quaint miniature church whose lowly penthouse porch seems to say, “ Ye must become as little children to enter here,” we swept in at the gate of Château Nohant and stopped before the arched doorway. This leads into a queer moon - shaped hall, which a staircase of shallow stone steps curls around, brooded over by a fine old air of dignified shabbiness and cool space. Indeed, the whole house might serve as text on simplicity’s charm contrasted with the bourgeois overcrowding of modern homes.

Down a corridor I was led into a great airy chamber hung and fitted with soft blue and fawn chintz. Here and there a curiously shaped mirror or old picture in dull tarnished gilt frame touched the blended colors with light, and on the mantel a porcelain shepherdess tendered a shell full of fresh phlox and old-timey pink roses. Outside of the big white windows breezes blew and rustled in the tops of two tall cedars of Lebanon and among the leaves of lesser trees. My Gabrielle turned to me with graceful deference : “ I have put you in the room which was my grandmother’s, hoping that would best please you.”

And how it pleased me ! Each night my brain was subtly, strangely fired as I lay down to rest in the great curtained bed of George Sand ; for Nohant was the home of her childhood and girlhood, and the place to which she returned with her two children, Maurice and Solange, after her separation from the Marquis de Dudevant. Her life here was an illustration of Goethe’s dictum that character is formed in the rush of life, but genius grows best in seclusion. The stillness and exquisite retirement of the old revolutionary mansion and its surroundings fostered her love for natural science, and more especially that interest in and intimate knowledge of peasant life which were the source of her finest work. It was in one of the green Nohant glades that, as little Aurore Dupin, she erected her rustic altar to the curious god of her imagination, the mysterious Corambé, and it was to this loved home she returned when convent days were over, to ride across country with her brother, shoot with ex-Abbé Deschâtre, listen to the ghost stories of the flax-dressers, and browse at will through the pages of Aristotle, Leibnitz, Locke, Condillac, Chateaubriand, arid Lord Byron. It was here at Nohant that, her fantastic, romantic youth and prime past, she spent the Indian summer of her old age, the loved centre of a happy home. All about me I recognized the warp of scenery and circumstance through which her luxuriant fancy and genius shot the gleaming woof and wrought the rich stuff of her unequaled French prose, whose rare diction fell on the sensitive ear of Thackeray as the sound of sweet, sad bells.

My Gabrielle is the “ Tichon” of those two loved little granddaughters, her son Maurice’s children, to whom there are so many references in her voluminous correspondence. — one of the small charmers for whom Chopin bought toys and George Sand wrote the Contes d’une Grand’mère. These were initiated one dull twilight when Aurore begged a story of her sibylline grandmother, and was gratified by the wonderful frog tale of La Mère Coax. Aurore’s mother, the daughter of the famous Italian engraver, Calamatta, heard the story over her little girl’s shoulder, and begged her motherin-law, whom she adored, to commit the improvisation to paper. Some of these stories are overladen with natural science, but most of them are charming, and, outside of Hans Andersen’s fairy tales, I do not know prose for children more deliciously delicate and fanciful than Le Nuage Rose and Les Ailes de Courage.

For little Gabrielle and Aurore, as for children the world over, the call to bed was a trial, but when their father cried, “ Il faut sonner la retraite ! ” and struck up a march, George Sand always dropped her writing or book to march gravely around the room, followed by family and guests, until, the procession winding up at the foot of the stairs, the little ones went off contentedly to bed ; yielding at once to this military retreat, which was perhaps a reminiscence of the time when George Sand’s father was on Murat’s staff in Spain, and she herself the petted child of the regiment.

Does not Browning say that every poet keeps two sides, one to face the world with, and another for the woman he loves? Here in peaceful Nohant, where the aroma of her great personality lingers, George Sand is remembered less as genius and emancipated woman than as indulgent mother, grandmother, and friend by the household, and as “ our little lady ” by the loyal peasantry.

My fellow-guest at the château was a well-known friend of George Sand, a traveled, courteous old Frenchman, full of gallantry and bonhomie; coming into the high-pitched dining-room each day with a ruddy color set off by his crown of white hair, and a bit of eglantine in his buttonhole, telling of what the hail had done to the wheat-fields or the latest news from Figaro. I wish I could give any idea of the table-talk at Nohant, full of a gayety which could not offend, a glancing play of wit which never jarred. We clumsier Anglo-Saxons do not handle our foils so deftly, nor always keep in place the button of courtesy. War was constantly waging between my gentle Gabrielle and the chevalier, but good will always shimmered over the mimic batteries, while Madame Maurice Sand brought her forces to bear, first on one side, and then on the other. When Gabrielle recounted the vagaries of her pet sparrow, who slept on her bosom and was madly jealous of any one who approached her, monsieur remarked that it was plain Jove was enamored of the beaux yeux of Tichon, and had come to woo in feathered form. Often I was struck with French possibilities of precise speech. When I noted the deft way in which, on a muddy road, Gabrielle held up her gown so as to escape the dirt, show the graceful lines of her figure, but never display an inch too much of her trim ankle, and contrasted it with the inefficient skirt-clawing of our English cousins, Madame Maurice assented: “Ah, oui, nos françaises se retroussent bien.”

The delightful quiet and simplicity of life at the château were in contradiction to our Anglo-Saxon notion that the French crave perennial excitement and shifting amusements, and I was constantly reminded of the sweet hospitality and gentle usages of our own old Virginia plantations. Country sights and sounds, with books and periodicals, seemed to supply all that was desired for the larger portion of the year. Gabrielle walked and drove, tended her pets, and nestled lovingly under her mother’s wing. Madame Maurice wrote for the reviews and looked to the ways of her household ; equally at home discussing politics, editing George Sand’s posthumous works, or concocting the lucent liqueurs which were served with our bonbons and black coffee after dinner. Her sympathetic tact and conversational readiness vivified for me much of what I have read of the women of the old salons, and proved the charm of a woman at once domestic and intellectual. Coming straight from Italy, full of prejudices against her tariff enemy. I was won over in spite of myself by the beauty of French rural life. An agreeable atmosphere of mutual respect and friendliness prevails between servants and mistress at Nohant, and I used to enjoy hearing madame talk to dignified Denis, the coachman, about things throughout the countryside. Little vignettes of our drives yet rise in my memory. I remember the time we went to the moated, tourelled Château d’Ars, a fine old building of the period of Diana of Poictiers, and under the high arching green avenue met the young master driving his bride in a tall new turnout, looking forth at us and all the world with that beaming optimism which shines in eyes beneath the honeymoon. On the grassy border of the road which in France is left for the cattle of the poor, Monsieur le Curé of Nohant and Monsieur le Curé of Vicq stand doffing their broad black beaver hats low, and as she smiles and bends her becoming Paris bonnet with arch respect, madame murmurs, “ Ah ! since I presented my mother’s crucifix and prie-dieu to the church I am in great odor of sanctity.”

Nohant is a large house, well adapted to its hospitable uses. From a European standpoint it is not ancient, but to American eyes the revolutionary mansion is quaint and old. The top story of the château was added by George Sand for her son’s studio. Here he arranged his extensive collection of minerals, shells, and butterflies, but devoted the greater part of his time to carving and painting figures for the puppet theatre on the ground floor, which, in the palmy days of George Sand’s lifetime, was the great feature of Nohant. For this theatre both of them wrote much, and readers of L’Homme de Neige will remember how much attention is devoted to puppet shows. Now, the garrets, closets, and spare rooms at Nohant are crowded with carefully draped figures of king and peasant, gnome and magician, Laplander and Oriental. Such variety of costume and face I never saw. Gabrielle said it was a great event in her childhood when the lady puppets developed busts, for at first the figures were only straight pieces of wood. Adjoining the puppet stage is a small theatre, in which George Sand often rehearsed her plays before regularly bringing them out in Paris. There were constant representations, sometimes given by the family and its guests, sometimes by players come on purpose from the capital. Maurice Sand was a versatile artist. Many will remember his designs of Columbine, Harlequin, Pantaloon, and Pulcinel, in J. A. Symonds’s version of Carlo Gozzi’s autobiography. I was interested in a very lovely portrait of Maurice Sand as a young man. He so much resembled his mother, who occasionally donned masculine dress, that he was often mistaken for her in the streets of Paris, and this picture has been repeatedly supposed to be hers. Another portrait which arrested my attention was that of her grandfather, the Maréchal de Saxe. George Sand’s writing-room is surrounded by cupboards labeled with the names of the various branches of natural science, and this is only one of many indications of her love for nature in all its manifestations. The place is full of reminiscences of great singers and littérateurs, and not least significant is the piano, caressed by the velvet fingers of Chopin. Flaubert is remembered by little Tichon as “ the beautiful old man who always wore a rose.” Adjoining the château grounds is a small burying - ground, and in the centre a massive slab of dark stone inscribed “ GEORGE SAND.”

I have not space to describe our morning rambles through Nohant wood, visits to Gabrielle’s aviary, and the stately evening promenades after dinner, between the tall rosebushes and the hedge of goldenrod, which in France likewise is called verge d’or. One day we drove to the neighboring market town of La Châtre to see the George Sand monument. The head and face of the figure are noble, but the position lacks grace and dignity. On the pedestal are inscribed the titles of her most famous works.

The Berri landscape about Nohant is suggestive of peaceful plenty rather than of wild or striking beauty. Wooded knolls and glens, rolling fields and grassy roads, with small villages of low thatched cottages looking away to the Vallée Noire of George Sand’s stories, make up a scene where one forgets the nineteenth century, and breathes the atmosphere of Eugénie de Guérin’s letters. How pleasant to meet mild, meditative geese pattering down the roads, instead of hurrying tourists with scarlet Baedekers, bitten by the gadfly of unrest! Curious old customs and superstitions still linger in Berri. One usage yet in vogue is to plant a cabbage in a basket of earth on the roof of a newly married pair. If the cabbage flourishes, happy the couple; if it languishes, woe betide that household. This cabbage-planting is done with state and ceremony, the bridal pair driving in a gayly caparisoned ox-cart, attended by rejoicing friends, carefully to select a healthy head from the fields,

The character of the country seems reflected in the Berrichon faces. I have never seen such serene, dignified countenances as under the fresh white peasant caps; not frilled Parisian head-dresses, but those small, smooth, clear muslin ones, with flowing bands, which form the sweetest frames for womanly faces, suggesting somehow pure, modest thoughts beneath.

I shall never forget a June morning stroll to Vicq to see some old frescoes discovered under the whitewash of the church in George Sand’s lifetime. It was after a heavy rain, and everything was sparkling with freshness, redolent of roses, with overhead a Claude Lorraine sky, — not the dear, deep Italian blue, but a delicate French variety with a charm of its own ; and it being first-communion day at Vieq, we met, every few yards, young girls clad in snowy muslins and white ribbons, sometimes faintly touched with pale azure, the Virgin’s color. There was never anything lovelier or more like a flock of pigeons than these fluttering apparitions with their shy, happy faces ; their fluffy garments bubbling over the little carts and wagonettes which flew like wind through the daintily tinted landscape.

Mary Argyle Taylor.