FROM the small turret where the chimes ring out, high up on lofty Reims Cathedral, far beyond the white city, the cavalry barracks in the outskirts, and conspicuous Pommery buildings rivaling in glory, in the proud Remois merchants’ minds, the shrine of Saint-Remy itself, a vast expanse of plain can be seen on a summer day, bounded in the distance by long, dark blue lines of gently undulating hills, the farthest of which grow so faint that they blend with the gray bank of cloud lying on the low horizon. “ Le vignoble,” the guide whispers, for the kings of France, gazing down with stony eyes from the colossal towers above, strike even him with awe; yet over his countenance has passed a halfperceptible smile of local patriotic satisfaction. Then, turning round and motioning in the opposite direction, “ The Ardennes,” he adds, with a disdainful shrug of the shoulder, immediately checked by a consciousness, strong in the humblest servant of the Church, of having to preserve ecclesiastical composure. In absolute contrast with wine-growing Champagne lies beneath us a Lazarus on the threshold of old Dives, — a dismal plain, pallid with chalky barrenness, abruptly ending in the distance in sharply outlined, irregular heights.
To reach these uncanny hills, which begin the Ardennes, about thirty miles of weary waste must be crossed, with the help of a local railway line, on which run about four trains a day, each made up of five cars of diminutive and antiquated shape, that might have been in use on the main line in the time when a fast express raced along at twenty miles an hour. The journey is of the dreariest. The train proceeds at snail-like pace, and stops every ten minutes, without apparent reason. On the immeasurable plain the rays of the sun strike with such a blinding force that all human beings seem to have disappeared, together with their houses; for not a vestige of habitation is seen, nor has the plough, probably, ever made an impression on the hard, level, treeless soil. The roads alone, branching off in dazzling whiteness right and left, remind one that this wilderness is not two hundred miles from Paris.
After about an hour and a half’s traveling through this circle of Dante’s Inferno, the landscape changes somewhat. Bushes peep out in ditches along the roads ; a few stunted trees are scattered about; the white chalk yields in large patches to the greensward. Then the soil grows uneven ; its pitiless surface, now puckered up in an angry frown, vainly strives to drive away the increasing shrubs and clumps of trees. The sun itself is losing some of its radiancy, as the turf spreads into a deeper green. The chalk erelong must give up the struggle, for the trees are no more mere stragglers now; gathered in serried ranks, their numberless battalions are slowly, but surely, beating off the enemy. Suddenly, as in a weird, fantastic tale of Edgar Poe, the dark hills, topped with woods, a moment ago in the distance, close in on both sides, like a gigantic pair of tentacles. The railway line is running through the Argonne passes, the famous Thermopylæ of France. This is neither Germany nor Belgium; this is still France, but the uttermost fringe of France. From Sedan on the Belgian frontier down to Passavant in the Vosges the forest-clad heights extend, in many lines, intrenchment thrown up behind intrenchment, shielding northeastern France from barbarian inroads. Now and then a narrow river has cut its way through intricate foliage. Through one of these postern gates the train has led us; it will stop presently at Apremont, not twenty miles from the Meuse, just where the pass opens out into a magnificent plain, gently sloping down in rich orchards and meadows to the banks of the river, the moat wherewith nature has provided the fortress. For some unaccountable reason, the military authorities, who reign supreme here, have decreed that the railway line shall proceed no farther. To get to Dun, on the river, one must hire a conveyance such as peasants can provide. Yet from Dun it is easy to reach the main line, which, running down to Sedan and Mézières, and up again behind the forest to Amagne and Reims, points out the road which the Germans followed thirty years ago.
The chief town in the district is Vouziers, for the existence of which some giant who stalked the Forest of Arden must be held responsible. Tired of seeing men, like busy ants, finding their way into his domain, he one day took up a huge shovel and cast their intruding hovels and farms and manors and churches all in a heap upon a hill in the wilderness, since when no single house has dared to go back into the forbidden land. The muddy waters of the Aisne mark the boundary which it is a trespass to cross. To the left, Vouziers and the chalky plain that we saw from Reims Cathedral; to the right, pastures and vineyards and green woods, — the Sahara next to the Promised Land.
Railway communications are not expected to be very good in a desert. It is quite a roundabout way from Vouziers to civilization. A light railway, in which old disused tram cars seem mostly employed, connecting the Reims-Charleville-Metz main line with the Apremont local line, runs through Vouziers. Under favorable circumstances, a distance like that from Vouziers to Grandpré, fourteen kilometres — less than ten miles — by the highway, may be traveled over in an hour and three quarters. Yet the whole district, remote as it seems, is connected with the Seine and the capital by the watershed. The thick, slimy waters at the foot of the hill on which Vouziers stands flow into the river Oise, which meets the Seine a little below Paris. The modern Alexandria might, however, be as distant as its ancient prototype, so little has its charmed influence softened this rough part of Champagne. In the irregularly shaped houses, the forbidding look of the unshuttered, heavily barred windows, the overlapping tiled roofs, but mainly in the stubborn pillars of the church and its quaint, massive Romance portico, old France has impressed her mark upon this quiet provincial town. On seeing the quadrangular Mairie standing alone in the market place, one would be tempted to declare that centralization is a thing unknown on the skirts of Argonne, and bless the part of the country in which the symbol and seat of local liberties occupies so prominent a position. Another token strengthened this belief when one of the two printers in the town bitterly complained that Monsieur le Maire had forbidden him from setting up for sale an illustrated post card, on which he had ventured to print by stealth a copy of a certain Rabelaisian picture locked up in the Mairie. Evidently no allegiance is paid Cleopatra here. Alas ! many are the devices that the capital uses to insure its predominance. Far from the market place, in remote byways, lurk the Tribunal and the Sub-Prefecture, two snug little hornets’ nests swarming with parasitical functionaries. The vision appeared, on that sultry August afternoon, of administrative France, the legacy of regal and Napoleonic tyranny, now dwarfed by the growth of Republican liberties to a blind, stupid, pettifogging red-tapism : through the open windows of the official building a bald-headed man was seen passing, with listless step ; under his arm he carried a dusty bundle of papier timbré, and, as he was far from the boulevards, he had not deemed it incompatible with his dignity to dispense with his coat, in the oppressive heat of the day, and expose himself in the simple glory of shirt sleeves.
Sleepy Vouziers once gave voice to its silent protest against over-regulation and state-protectionism : its most illustrious citizen is M. Taine. Here is the house in which he was born, the familiar streets he trod, the school to which his childish footsteps bent; yonder the roads over which his father would lead him. All these early impressions M. Taine has recounted in the charming article on his native land, published as a preface to M. de Montagnac’s work on the Ardennes, afterwards reprinted in his Derniers Essais de Littérature et d’Histoire.
One better understands the man M. Taine was after having seen some of those scenes of childhood which sink so deeply in the mind. Life is a problem that wears a serious look on this barren hill, surrounded by barren plains. There is no time to dream or smile. The town is built upon hard rock, — hard as the logic and style of M. Taine. He would not let his sentence softly ripple on or meander in long, harmonious bends along the page, Pater-like; nor would he deliver it unto the reader, as Renan did, disguised under the neat folds of irony. It is a statue of granite, roughly hewn, displaying tremendous sinews. The magnificent cloak that he afterwards threw over it, gorgeous with glittering color, profusely bedecked with gems, like some Merovingian saint, was no doubt the outcome of the Romanticism on which his student days were nursed, at the Ecole Normale, in 1848. There would be much to say on the earnestness of purpose, so strangely prominent, in his work, on his belief in individual energy, on his intense pathetic pessimism. Poor himself amidst the poor, with the lasting pictures stamped upon his brain of the workingman at the barges on the river, in the forges, then more numerous than now, or, poorest of all, of the woodcutter in the Forest of Arden, — no wonder he dwelt upon the seamy side of life, and felt a grim satisfaction in tearing off the sham cloaks of generosity in which Revolutionists and counter - Revolutionists wrapped themselves.
Perhaps, in olden times, some gallant warrior, clad in armor, would ride down the hill, across the river, and dash into the forest, with intent to overthrow the giant that so jealously kept the Promised Land away from poor humanity. To such a combat did M. Taine seem to hasten, when he began to denounce centralization, overregulation, and all the evils with which contemporary France is so grievously tormented. The giant that he encountered was, unfortunately, Protean; he scotched it, but did not kill it, and Vouziers is not freed to-day from official vermin.
Strange to say, Vouziers cares little for its most famous child. His fellow citizens are strangely reticent on the cordiality of their intercourse with him. “ C’était un homme bizarre,” is their curt appreciation. It is said that the municipal council solemnly asked him to present the town library with a complete set of his works, and that he declined to carry out the suggestion. Hence the coldness of the population. They did not see that he was prompted by the reserve of a writer who, unlike his contemporaries, cared little for réclame. I looked vainly for a rue Taine. Rues Gambetta and rues Chanzy are plentiful, but Vouziers does not bear the slightest memorial of the author of Les Origines de la France Contemporaine.
From Vouziers to Grandpré the scenery changes. We now tread on hallowed ground; not a Frenchman but feels his heart beat in nearing Grandprè, la Croixaux-Bois, le Chesne-le-Populeux, where every inch of defile is associated with the recollection of heroic struggles against the enemy. Leonidas defended the Greek Thermopylæ only once ; these passes have been held against tremendous odds a hundred times, by obscure, long-forgotten heroes. Let us take Grandpré as a strategical centre.
The old town, with its magnificent church and the ruins of its ancient château, stands on a hill commanding a plain about five miles broad. The river Aire lazily flows among the deep green meadows, while on either side rise the darkwooded walls of the pass. The town, built of dark yellow sandstone, looks as if the smoke of the battles had but recently passed away. The whole country teems with martial recollections. On the edge of one of the woods, over which the Ardennais peasant has carefully drawn his plough, it is said that Cæsar once pitched his camp. This was the first brush of the rough forest folk with the enemy. A few centuries later the exhausted barbarians halted on the same spot, after their disastrous battle with the Gallo-Roman army on the Catalaunic fields, near Châlons. There was no saintly maiden in Argonne to protect it, as Sainte - Geneviève had protected Paris, against the wrath of Attila. The wild ancestor of the modern woodcutter, no doubt, fled into the recesses of the forest, always ready to afford him shelter ; and when the host of barbarians moved away, like a receding flood, he stole out and avenged himself upon the stragglers. More centuries passed on, and when, France having emerged from the chaos and ruins left by the fall of the Roman power and the breaking up of the empire of Charlemagne, crafty Capetian chieftains had set up for themselves, by ruse as well as force, the Merovingian and Carlovingian thrones, Argonne became an outpost ever protecting Champagne and Ile-de-France. More than once, the enemy, Spaniard, Hollander, or German, tried to storm these fortress gates, but never were they nearer achieving their end than in 1792.
That memorable year the fates very nearly went against modern France. General Dumouriez, in command of the small Revolutionary army, had pitched his camp at Grandpré ; earthworks protected the town, and a strong force held the bridges on the river below. The panic of the raw recruits who fled before a handful of Prussian hussars, and the blunder of a colonel which allowed the émigrés to gain possession of the Croix-aux-Bois pass, thus making it possible for them to outflank the French army, were near wrecking Dumouriez’ plan of amusing the enemy till reinforcements should come up. Heavy rains had fallen in that bleak September, and the shivering, ill-clad, badly-fed army grew impatient to leave the camp. An outbreak of dysentery added to the horrors of those days. A report spread among the men that the Minister of War in Paris deprecated Dumouriez’ plan, and had positively ordered him to fall back at once upon Châlons. Dark hints of treason were thrown out. Yet the sturdy general clung to the passes, and trusted the old forest to keep back the invaders. At last the colonel’s blunder made retreat imperative. Under favor of darkness the Republican forces slipped away. Imagine the motley crowd : veterans who had fought in Hannover, in the Low Countries, in New England, mingled with inexperienced young patriots, Parisian and Marseillaise, whose bravery, easily stirred by the rhetoric of Jacobinical stump orators, melted away at the first danger. They march out of the town in good order ; but the roads are bad, the mud lies deep, and in the forest on either side must be concealed innumerable Austrians and Prussians. The artillery were the first to disobey orders : they fled to a hill, whence they refused to stir. Suddenly some Prussian hussars, probably scouts, fell in with the recruits. The next morning Dumouriez wrote to the Assembly in Paris: “Ten thousand men fled before fifteen hundred Prussian hussars. The loss does not exceed fifty men and some stores. Tout est réparé, et je réponds de tout.” A few days after, the Prussian general, Brunswick, suffered a defeat at Valmy. In 1839, the old men told M. Miroy, the juge de paix of Grandpré, that they remembered the cannonade on that 20th of September. Two days later the Republic was proclaimed. It is sometimes amusing to dwell upon what might have been. Learned historians have shown that it was impossible for the Prussians to win, which inference is duly accompanied with a long array of admirable reasoning ; but then historians are charlatans. With a trifle more activity and foresight on Brunswick’s part, Dumouriez was cut off from Châlons and caught in a trap. A week later the émigrés would have crushed the Revolution in Paris, and we leave the reader to fancy the wave of reaction spreading over Europe. France was saved by the hesitations and jealousies of the Allies, whose temper must have been akin to that of the Powers, a few months ago, in China. To the prejudiced mind of Europe, Septembriseurs and Sansculottes were little better than Boxers to us. There was a great deal of talk of repression, in courts and chancelleries ; but no one dared to hasten on affairs, for fear of unforeseen consequences. The Austrians reconnoitred a little, and spoke about winter quarters, while Brunswick, with the Prussians, felt satisfied of his success at Grandpré. So Kellermann had time to bring his troops up and meet Dumouriez, whose army had meanwhile been cleared of patriotic turbulency. France still labors under the delusion that the tide of invasion rolled back before the raw levies of the Revolution. In fact, Valmy was the last victory of the old régime, redeeming the defeats suffered at the hands of Frederick the Great.
Since then, Grandpré has seen the enemy pour down the passes three times, in 1814, 1815, and 1870, but unrestrained and victorious. The spell that made Argonne invulnerable was broken with the fall of monarchy. A few very old people can remember the Cossacks plundering the whole region, even as their descendants plundered Manchuria the other day.
The face of the country bears the traces of its long martial record ; even the churches have been built so as to be turned into castles at a moment’s notice. At Saint-Juvin, at Verpel, buttresses and turrets mingle with rose windows and church crosses, and the stout walls show with what indomitable will Marshal Turenne, in the civil wars of the Fronde, battered them with his rebel artillery. After the battle of Denain, in the wars of Marlborough, when the Dutch raided the country, the inhabitants of Grandpré held out under shelter of the mighty central tower of their church.
But the stones alone do not proclaim the fact that, with her past, France must remain a military nation. About every fortnight, in August and September, troops going to or returning from manœuvres march through the passes. Sometimes they halt a night or two, and are quartered upon the inhabitants, who thus pay a tax which is not mentioned in the annual budget. Servitude militaire the law terms this annoyance, against which scarcely any one ever murmurs, so deep is the love for the army. On the two occasions when we saw the soldiers, their behavior, it must be said, was exemplary. They were Ardennais themselves, peasants’ sons for the most part, with a sprinkling of townsmen. When the loud church bell tolled nine, no one would have thought there were over a thousand men in a little town whose population just exceeds nine hundred. The next morning, as I was asking a small, squat private why he was gravely cutting away with his penknife a centimetre from a tape measure, “ I’ve only a hundred days more to serve,” he answered, with a broad smile. “ Every day I cut away a centimetre.”
In all the chief families on the frontier one or two sons are brought up for the army. There now rises before me the portrait of one of those Ardennais, a heavy white-mustached major, whose only thought in September is about shooting hares and partridges. In 1870, a young sub-lieutenant in the Lancers, he was at Beaumont, at the extreme end of Argonne, when the Germans surprised a French army corps at bivouac. A German captain, it is said, declined to open fire on “ men in shirt sleeves.” Of course the French had neglected to reconnoitre. “We began to reconnoitre,” added the major, “ in the army of the Loire, under General Chanzy.”
He had been, three weeks before, at Reichshofen, in the famous charge. “ We were forced back by the enemy’s heavy fire. In trying to get under shelter of a wood, we fell in with some Prussian infantry, fought our way into a château, and, breaking through the gates, crossed the river at the back and galloped into darkness.” When they rallied at Saverne, they were fifty out of six hundred. He tells the tale slowly, in an unemotional way. Verily, these Ardennais are not the sensitive, brilliant Gallo-Romans of southern France ; they are the fair-haired, taciturn Franks. Turenne and Chanzy, the French generals whose tactics were most remote from what are supposed to be the characteristics of French soldiership, reckless bravery, daring, swift demoralization, were both born in the Ardennes.
Nor is it only martial France, athirst for glory and conquest, it is also Catholic France that is revealed by Argonne. And the contrast does not impress one as striking. The passage is not from battlefields to scenes of evangelical peace, but from foreign strife to internal war. It is the tragic destiny of France, who has always waged war against her neighbors, often allied together in formidable coalitions, now to be torn with factions within herself. A close relation also appears between the Church and the sword. The appeal to arms has borne with the higher-minded French soldier a mystical aspect symbolically visible in Reims Cathedral. Above tower the gigantic statues of the kings of France, glaive in hand, while below, before the porch on which are carved, within a circle of meek bishops and peacemaking cardinals, the most peaceful scenes of Scripture, stands the bronze statue of Joan of Arc. No wonder that the Republic, unfavorable as it is both to foreign war and to mysticism, is at bottom unpopular. The debates in the Chamber of Deputies do not send through the country the thrill of a curt dispatch in the Moniteur de l’Empire, bearing the glad tidings of another Austerlitz.
The immense effort made since 1870 by the Roman Church to gain ascendency is visible in this remote part of France. On the smallest church door there may be read a notice setting forth in businesslike style the facilities granted to would-be pilgrims to Lourdes, the whole bearing the approval of Cardinal Langeniena, one of the most distinguished in the French episcopate. From the great cathedral, where a large painting, hung in conspicuous evidence, records his entrance into Jerusalem as papal legate, amidst respectful Turkish soldiery and French consuls-general making meek obeisance, down to the small parish church of poverty-stricken Challerange, a hamlet sunk in the marshes ten miles south of Vouziers, but where a stained-glass window, a gift from son Eminence, blazes forth his name, the Cardinal-Archbishop of Reims has more glory in Argonne than mayor, prefect, general, or the President of the Republic himself.
The hold that old, naïve forms of belief retain upon the popular mind is pathetic. Living in a thinly populated district, within sight of the dark forest looming on every side, the simple folk, with the reverence of their pagan ancestors, worship the waters that break down the barrier of the forest, hollow the soil into valleys, and yield abundance. Five miles from Grandpré, on the road to Varenne, where the coach in which Louis XVI. was escaping to Germany was stopped by a Jacobin postmaster on a memorable night, there nestles in the hollow of the hillside the village of SaintJuvin, in whose church lies buried René de Joyeuse, one of the Counts of Grandpré. Here the traveler will be led to a spring issuing in mere dribble from the rock, and preciously gathered a few feet below into a cemented tank, in the soapy waters of which a village woman is lustily washing linen. On Whitsunday, however, the tank is scrubbed clean, and from miles around the peasants come and carry away a little water, said, if administered within the week to the swine, to preserve them from disease. In the church, the faithful may pay their devotions in all seasons to the patron saint of the spring, Saint-Juvin, a canonized swineherd. The flower offerings wither at the foot of the village palladium, a vulgar Saint-Anthony that an astute vender of church ornaments has palmed upon the credulous curé for a Saint-Juvin. Near Verpel, another spring is said to cure toothache ; another insures the fair drinker thereof a husband within the year. The attitude of the most enlightened farmer toward these superstitions is complex. The wife half believes in the miraculous effect of the waters ; remembers how they cured So-and-So, and concludes with a “ Who can tell ? ” strangely like the reasoning of the modern scientist when confronted by the unseen. The husband, on the contrary, is unphilosophic, disbelieves the tales, declares them good for children and grandams, — which is lowminded and Voltairean, of course. But the subject is visibly working on his mind; he is silent, lets the reins float loose on his horse’s back, and unexpectedly breaks out, “ Tout de même, c’est dur de quitter sa ferme et sa bonne femme et d’être couché sous la terre.” Then he cracks his whip, and tries to dismiss the unpleasant train of thought. The sun has just dropped behind the tall pines, whose tops are glowing now; the dusk thickens on the brown hills, in the glorious valley, where the eye erewhile distinctly saw the rich green meadows, interspersed with lighter stripes of hedge or bulrush, and dappled with grayish-green poplars ; the mist of night is fast blotting out both shape and color. There is a moment’s hush ; then the wind sweeps along the road, moaning softly ; presently it shrieks among the trees, and echoes miles away in the forest depths, whose spirit, now awake, is answering back. The farmer may be a disbeliever in SaintJuvin, but he is still a thrall of the Church. The fear of the unknown is upon him.
The Socialist maire of Reims, a summer ago, pulled down a cross in the cemetery, forbade public Roman Catholic processions as nuisances, fined the cardinal himself for having infringed the regulation, and personifies for the population the Republic at war with the Church and its formidable reactionary power. The Legislative in Paris are busy preparing, with a ministry of Republican defense, coercitive measures against Jesuit and Assumptionist fathers, but the contest may be foretold as hopeless. Weapons must match weapons : a walking stick is useless against a bayonet, a crossbow against a rifle, and science against the fear of death. In the sixteenth century France cast in her lot with the Roman Church ; every effort to free herself has since then been unavailing. Where the eighteenth-century philosophers and the Revolutionists and the Liberal Catholics failed, it is scarcely probable that M. WaldeckRousseau will succeed. The more moderate parties, Progressives and Radicals and Opportunists, are losing ground. France is bound to become another Belgium, — a vast arena where, exchanging the palm of martyrdom for the gladiator’s sword, Ultramontanism will grapple with Socialism.
In Grandpré church, on the black marble tombstone of Claude de Joyeuse, Count of Grandpré, an unknown Jaques, bred to melancholy by the Forest of Arden, carved the following lines : —
Finalement elle le pourrit,
En tout ce que l’homme abonde,
Il n’a que sa vie en ce monde,
Et quand il a passé son temps
Il n’a gagné que ses dépens.”
They are the apt motto of Argonne. If Dumouriez’ veterans came to life again in those valleys, they would hardly know, in the fine roads and carefully cultivated land, the wild country in which they held out against the German foe. The half-savage peasant is now a respectable farmer. The Counts of Grandpré are no more ; their castle was accidentally burned down in 1894, and on its still stately ruins sober rentiers have reared a bourgeois - looking country residence. For military purposes the forest is disregarded, the barrier now being nearer the frontier, in the Vosges Mountains. The warlike spirit of the inhabitants, meanwhile, ingloriously spends itself in petty feuds between Dreyfusards and antiDreyfusards. Instead of affronting the giant of Argonne, like the chivalrous warriors of old, the bourgeois have lulled him to sleep, and avail themselves of his stupor to parcel out among themselves the forest which, ever docile, yields its decennial produce.