A Bit of Old France
THE village of Ermenonville does not fill a large space on the map of France, and the guidebook offers it merely the beggarly tribute of a paragraph in fine print. In this year of a universal exposition the world will journey to Paris and pass the little city by, as it passes by Rouen, Blois, Loches, and other towns more picturesque, more graciously intact, than the ofttimes ruin-swept metropolis. Yet the great city and the little one are neighbors. Paris hides away Ermenonville under her elbow, cherishing near her heart this souvenir of the olden time. World-weary herself, she guards its innocence, uttering no whisper of the passing of epochs. If a destructive rumor of revolution threatened violence a century and more ago, Paris answered the outcry, and left her protégé to its old ways. The storm passed over the sheltered village, leaving only one ruin in the path of its lightning. Thus it happens that here, almost under the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, and now, on the eve of a new century, one may find a bit of old France. The railroads dare not invade it, the traveler never hears of it; even the omnipresent investigating bicyclist turns away from its cobblestone barricade of “ royal roads.” It is lost to our time, out of our world. The princes and peasants who are its sole inhabitants seem to guard the secret of its existence. Its two innkeepers look with disdain upon the passing foreigner, with suspicion upon all revenue derived from others than the sportsmen who annually, so soon as the chase is open, descend upon field and forest. That we remote Americans should have found it, that we should have made it ours for two idle months, is a miracle which should not be revealed to the inquisitive modern world.
The omnibus from the far-away railroad town rattled clamorously around the curve of the stone-paved street, past clustering red-tiled roofs and fronts of stucco, and into the courtyard of the Hotel of the Cross of Gold. Yes, the landlady would accommodate us, — a front room and one only a trifle less desirable were at our disposal for the sum of two francs each a day. Large, square bare rooms they proved to be, which the overzealous modern upholsterer had never entered. But the pine floor was clean, the bed under faded curtains was a good old piece of mahogany, and its linen was white and fine and embroidered with a flowery monogram. We sank so softly back into the past, that night, that we resolved not to return to our less gentle era. The only house in the town which is neither a cot nor a palace fell into the wonder-working hands of the Parisian madame who was managing the world for us. A spacious old mansion, with a hilly wooded park from which one might look down even on the château, — a park inclosed with walls of ivied stone, locked in with iron gates, and filled with tall pines and beeches and broad lindens ; all this was ours.
We made no haste to explore the little town, — why should we vex the restfid spirit of the place by filling up the sunny days with energy ? Just beyond our park lay a national domain of forest; its shady spaces of trees, its sandy reaches of heather, were joy enough for the long sweet hours. And up on the crest of the village hill was an ancient Gothic church, in whose square tower and queerly carved portals and capitals three centuries have left the record of their faith. It was enough to wander between these two along the quaint old streets, to enter the little shops and talk to the bent old women, and arouse their effusive gratitude by the expenditure of sous ; to follow the worshipers in to mass, and marvel at the array of gayly decked Madonnas and realistic martyrs in agony. No dilapidated interior this, like so many of the village churches round about. “ Through the pity of God and the bounty of the Prince and Princess Radziwill,” — so reads the tablet, — “ this church has been completely restored in the year of grace 1886.” Ah, this is that scion of a noble Polish house who bought the chateau of Ermenonville from the ancient family of the Girardins. This is the ardent sportsman who rents from the government the right to shoot small game in the forest, while the Due de Gramont, of the Chateau de Mortefontaine at the other end of it, pays fifty thousand francs a year for his feudal lordship over deer and wild boar.
To-day, as we pass the prince’s chateau, the great iron gates of the park swing wide. It is Sunday; we may leave our mediaeval mood at the entrance, and, with one bold step, move forward as far as the eighteenth century. For this park is the chef-d’œuvre of the infatuated old Marquis de Girardin, who laid bis playful hand on nature a century and a third ago. He twisted this rivulet and set up those rocks for it to fall over, and placed these stones whereon we cross it; and down at the foot of the cascade he fashioned this grotto. But no, not he ; this is the work of fairies. Here, on a tablet of artificial stone, little midnight revelers have set their signatures to eight or ten lines of courtly verse, which warn away all mortal intruders from their moonlit rendezvous, and promise good fortune to true lovers.
We circle half around the little lake, and discover that philosophers, as well as fays, have looked into its waters. For among the trees on the slope is a ruined belvedere, dedicated in respectful Latin to the memory of Montaigne, qui omnia dixit. Each of its fluted pillars, erect or fallen, bears the name of some great wise man, and here the little wise are commanded by the inscription over the portal to “ know the causes of things.” “ Quis hoc perficiet? — falsum stare non potest.” Is it possible that neither time nor enemies wrought this ruin, that the noble builder left his temple picturesquely incomplete to typify sentimentally the incompleteness of philosophy ? What a luxurious old sage he must have been, — one of those toy democrats of a royal age, who held to their feudal tyrannies with one hand, while the other played with pretty symbols of the equality of man, until the bold realities arose in a confounding murderous flood to overwhelm both tyrannies and symbols ! What an adjustable mind he must have had, with the appropriate sentiment always ready for the dramatic moment, with graceful moods of mirth or melancholy waiting to be summoned at need ! And what scorn he would feel for modern humor, for the desecrating realism of the nineteenth century! I can almost see him leading me down the path toward his lake, a courteous, overstately little gentleman, dressed in decorous black velvet, with an edge of fine lace on his ruffles. He sits beside me on the low stone bench as I look across the narrow water to the tiny “ isle of poplars ; ” and his solemn gesture bids me read some half-obliterated sorry little verses carved on two stones in this open space under the trees. A touch of pride in his sadness convinces me that he is the poet who wrought them, and I offer him an English version with a deprecating air of humility for its unworthiness: —
Where soft shade peace imparts,
Lies the mortal body of Jean Jacques Rousseau.
But’t is in sensitive hearts
That this man so good, who was all sentiment,
Has built of his soul the eternal monument.”
So reads the first stone. I scrutinize my courtly guide with deeper interest, and search among half-forgotten incidents of literary history. My poet and philosopher is then Rousseau’s patron,— it was no other than the Marquis de Girardin who gave Jean Jacques the home which only six weeks later became his burial place. I take off my hat to him, and try to feel more respect for his poetry as I decipher the second inscription : —
He to the mother restored her child’s caress.
For man at his birth this benefactor stood
And made him more free so that he might be good.”
With mind and soul thus properly attuned by a modest muse, I cross the little bridge to the sacred isle, and ponder at the tomb of the romantic philosopher of a bygone time. “ Icy repose l’homme de la nature et de la vérité.” “ The man of nature and of truth,” —such was the verdict of Rousseau’s age upon his character ; and here, in broken and weatherstained bas-reliefs, are the mothers and children whom he restored to one another’s caresses, — mothers chastely and classically draped, babies artistically nude, sporting in primitive innocence together. What respect he felt for parental tenderness, — this man who gave never a thought to his own children, but left them to suffer or prosper as the fates might will ! As I study the battered stone, the eighteenth century itself seems to lie in that sarcophagus, and the pompous epitaph is a tribute to its ineradicable insincerity. And suddenly the picturesque irony of the monument is emphasized by a consciousness of its emptiness, — for was not even Rousseau’s body taken away, borne in triumph to the Pantheon at the climax of the great storm which he had helped to awaken ? In vain the old-world marquis lifted his voice to stay the young republic’s vandal hand : the philosopher could not be suffered to sleep in peace even here where he belonged. These classic sculptures, these overwrought rills and groves and temples, were too romantically appropriate.
What would Rousseau’s nebulous naturalism have thought of the storm ? How it would have shocked his cœur sensible, scared the soul qui fût tout sentiment. What would he have done with the whirlwind, he who had sown the wind ? The new era descending in clouds and darkness would have swept him back into the old, like a lost leaf in a gale. If he had lived another fifteen years with his sympathetic marquis, if he had followed the resolute mob to the beautiful abbey of Chaalis only a mile or two away, and watched them batter and burn and sack it till of its grandeur nothing was left but ruin, would he not have returned in terror to his “ desert ” and his “ cabin,” to his illusions of simplicity and tenderness, and left to a more intrepid philosophy the interpretation of this violent realism ?
The new age may be irreverent, but it is honest. It is unkind to illusions, intolerant of impracticable theories, but it takes nature and men as they are, and does not try to furbish them with sentiments. It is methodical, exact, and bold in its search for truth, not imaginative and worshipful. These shapely villages nestling in shady hollows it rudely proclaims unsanitary, and would ruthlessly tear down their mossy walls of stucco and their thatched roofs heavy with the dampness of ages, and build for the meagre huddling peasants cottages fresh and wholesome, if hideous. Its aspiration is not aesthetic but practical, not for beauty but for comfort. It may rear for the future a stronger race, but it will not bequeath to it monuments so fine, towns so harmonious, palaces so noble.
This region, like a rich old parchment. bears undisturbed the illuminated writing of the past, and to read it one needs only a horse or a wheel capable of expanding one’s vision by ten miles. For though the great king’s road of cobblestones is a barricade against Parisian invasion, one finds beyond the barrier the level paths of the republic, and follows them to sequestered villages, — yes, even to railroad towns. Senlis, beloved of Henry of Navarre, the ancient capital of the Merovingian kings, sleeps peacefully to the north, lifting the towers and graceful transept of its cathedral out of many centuries of its silent past, — centuries whose various architectural moods make a discord between turret and portal — a war of forms and ornaments in which time, the great mediator, has proclaimed a lasting truce. And Dainmartin crowns an ambitious hill at the end of a shady mounting road, — sleepy old Dammartin, which wakes up for a fete once a year, a fete with booths and merry-go-rounds and delicious plum tarts, — even an “ exposition des tableaux,” wherein he who buys an admission ticket may draw a prize, if he wins a fateful number, from a collection which shows to what abysses modern French art may sink in the provinces. And down across fertile meadows the tiny city of Baron awaits its discoverer, revealing from afar the beautiful stone spire of its little church, — a church which is a masterpiece of early Gothic, as perfect, as consummate, as a richly wrought jewel on Saint Louis’ breast.
These three towns are the terminal points of as many radii centring in Ermenonville, but to reach them one must pass through little hamlets so alluring, so individual, that it is difficult to resist and ride on, Ver and Ève and Ham tisse nestle cosily in curves of the road, each with its primitive little stuccoed chapel wherein the village life has been consecrated for centuries. Sometimes these churches antedate the Gothic era with their rounder, more massive lines ; sometimes they carry curious additions of Renaissance portal and ornament; but always they have the charm of simplicity, naïveté, and a grace half expressed and therefore pathetic in its appeal. They are architectural sketches ; out of such experiments as these cathedrals grew in creative minds; and thus they are suggestive beyond the perfect, the consummate work with all its pinnacles and saints of stone. And there are sketches also in domestic architecture. At the outskirts of Fontaine-des-CorpsNus (what a name for legends to mount on!) is the ancient quadrangle of a farm, where the laborers and horses, the pigs and chickens, still work and feed and clatter as of old ; and where their tolerance permits one to linger and admire the sturdy round tower in the corner, the long, low-sloping red roofs, the faultless grouping, — all simple, unpretentious, and yet perfect with the touch of a feeling finer than our labored thought.
Then, since this is a country of princes and peasants, where the middle class is obliterated, there are châteaux facing broad avenues or hidden in deep woods, — châteaux varying in age and degree, from the homelike simplicity of the one which dominates this farm to the ornate splendor of Mortefontaine, whose superrefined late Renaissance design attests the gorgeous but rotting epoch of Louis XV. All these princely dwellings have passed from the families who built them to the lordship of a newer aristocracy, but the old customs are honored still, as though to propitiate the dispossessed ghosts of earlier days. Still does monsieur the prince or the duke go forth to meet the boar in the forest, even though the quarry has to be imported and fed and tended for his unkind fate. Still does the horn blow in the curving street of Ermenonville — I myself have been awakened by it — when the hounds are led to the starting place by green-coated keepers. Still does my lord give a fête and fireworks to the villagers — I myself have seen the spectacle — when his son and heir comes of age ; and all the neighboring country makes merry as of yore, though perhaps with a little less of feudal faith and loyalty.
It was only the other day — twenty or thirty years by the calendar — that the château of Ermenonville passed away from the forlorn reluctant descendants of Jean Jacques’ marquis into the reverent hands of the Polish prince, who at once set about restoring house and park to their old artificial prettiness, checking the decay to which an iconoclastic century had exposed the ancient seat. And the neighboring estate of Chaalis, whose abbey and château were a monastery in Rousseau’s time, is now ruled over by a house made royal by alliance with the plebeian emperor who set his heel upon the old régime. The grandson of Prince Murat, King of Naples and Sardinia, dwells in the beautiful Louis XIV. palace, and looks out upon the Gothic abbey’s mossy ruin. Simple and fine almost to sternness are the lines of the château, with only one dormer breaking the strong slope of its roof, — a severe early experiment in a style ambitious for distinction and magnificence. Under the vaulted stone ceiling of its long corridor are busts and paintings of the empire, with other reminders of a race that was hidden away in Corsican hills when these shapely stones were laid. Doubtless there is a higher righteousness behind the irony of fate. Doubtless the past should yield to the present, the ideals of one age should become the sport of another, and we should stand sure and self-secure in the modern faith as our fathers did in that of their day. But in the presence of memorials of the past it is difficult to maintain this mood of serenity. How are we writing our story on the scarred old earth ? Will our scientific courage leave as fine a record as the aspiration of the past has left ? Will the future accept our labors as gratefully as we accept these quiet quaint old villages, these beautiful battered churches, these châteaux which prove the splendor of feudal lordship ? Shall we, who sit in judgment on the past, leave proofs of faith as indisputable as these ?
Under the princely portal and out in the flowery park, I reflect upon all the warnings against modern egotism which have surprised me from day to day in manor and hamlet, — upon the round Norman towers, the dilapidated Gothic portals and belfries, the finely simple dwellings of prince and peasant. I feel abased almost to self-contempt under the tall, gaunt choir of this ruined abbey, whose mighty columns and arches our awakening era so violently swept away. We cannot carve such capitals as these, nor set the vaulting of those cloisters, nor shape these lofty windows, nor fill their empty spaces with pictures wrought in gleaming jewels. We have lost this instinct for architecture, this sense of direct connection between the mind and the uplift of stone on stone. We are separated from it by centuries of imitation, of affectation, of cheap meddling with a great art, — the long effort to repeat the past instead of presenting the truth of our own souls, as these old monks presented theirs. I try to upbuild this fallen temple in their spirit, and the touch of that spirit withers me with their scorn. How they would hate our boasted liberalism, our iconoclastic science, our sacrilegious use of the mysterious powers of nature, our restless wanderings to and fro upon the earth ! In this their noble monument I dare not give them scorn for scorn. As their solemn procession winds through these lofty aisles, I dare not say that our search is braver than theirs, our truth as much greater as the sun-thronged universe is vaster than their little star-encircled world. For not with boasting may we answer the silent centuries, but with works as sublime as theirs.