An Hour in Chartres

THROUGH the brown French fields, ploughed into powder, the curving lines of their furrows stretching like the line grain of wood to the villages and forests on the horizon, I rode on Easter Monday down to Chartres. The fruit trees were white with blossom, and the sombre little farmsteads, toned to a soft gray or brown by the winters that had passed over them, and built in a square of almost indistinguishable medley of house, stable, granary, and orchard wall, were fantastically gay with their wealth of flowers. A glimpse of black-haired women waving vivacious aprons at the flying train; a crowd of peasants, holiday-garbed, assembled in a farmyard; a château or two standing stiffly with its clean white classic lines in its park, which showed between rows of poplars a flash of marble statues and water; brown sprawling villages, climbing with overlapping roofs uphill to a gaunt church tower; delicate woods with trees that looked as if they had stepped out of a Corot; and the soaring towers of Chartres on the horizon.

The first scene one has in Chartres is one of those perfect things which seem to concentrate in a composed picture all the essential qualities of a place, a picture that seems the very incarnated body of a soul. A very green little meadow, dotted with twisted moss-covered trees, surrounded by still canals down below the town; the banks lined with slender tapering poplars, such as march in solemn state along the canals and roads of northern France, and give that charming quality to its far-reaching countryside. Through the poplars of the meadow gleam the white arches of a spacious viaduct, with red roofs climbing the slopes of the little valley through which the canals run out of the River Eure. Along the banks walked blue-garbed nuns in their flaring white starched caps, and dowdy red-legged soldiers, while in the walks were children rolling hoops and whipping tops. It was the very essence of daily France, its peace, its color, the sweet richness of its immemorial life, the charm of its perfect blending of house and tree and grass, all become through the centuries as personally and as intimately French as the people who inhabit them and love them, — a scene as far removed in spirit from the prim stinginess of the English scene as it is from the savage largeness of our own American.

The moment when one first steps from the station into a foreign town never loses its thrill for me. It is always the threshold of an adventure, the meeting of a new communal personality, to be grasped and won and made intimate. One sniffs the air in anticipation of what its quality is to be, as one feels rolling toward one a welcome of individuality, to which one’s heart goes out in a rush of response.

To explore alone a picturesque town, — what experience packs more of human charm and delight into itself than this attack, for indomitable possession, on the foreign scene? In Chartres, the explorer darts about the narrow crooked streets, discovering at every corner some interesting house or gable or window; catching down every turning street some charming picture of massing houses, or tower or little square; coming unawares upon some busy figure of a man or woman who reveals suddenly from his occupation or gesture what it really means in terms of life to go through the daily duties and to dwell in this town. Farther on, the traveler watches the old roofs mass themselves up a hill, and climbs to church-tower or nearby rise to look down on the clustered chimney-pots. He flashes his eyes about at the shops and the carts and the market-place, if he is so lucky as to come upon the graveled square bulging with heaped produce and ruddy old women under vast umbrellas. Here, he delights to catch the postman at work, or to meet the little boys pouring out of school, black-aproned and bare-kneed, with their bags under their arms; there, he peeps straight into an open window, and unabashedly records in his mind the arrangement of the room and the style of the life lived in it — pleased at some slight little touch of taste in a humble apartment. Now he looks down a long court past fantastically squalid cottages, or up a dark stairway, — wondering what is above. And at last he slips into the chill and silent church, makes a swift tour of aisles and ambulatory, contrasting the gaudy little chapels with some exquisite Gothic detail of fretted stone, or rose-window. Exploring ever hungrily and greedily, he draws deep breaths and imagines that he has always lived in the town and is now going about native and important business. And in this way he assimilates, and comes away saturated with, the rich spirit of the place, a hundred pictures indelibly etched on his mind, and a quite inexpressibly satisfying sense of quality felt, warmly and glowingly. Finally comes the mad dash into the train as it pulls away, in order to leave himself no tedious wait while the virtue might slowly drain out of him. And at the end there is a last swift incomparable glimpse of the immovable majesty of a cathedral towering over the huddled town.

And it was in some such fashion that I saw Chartres. The cathedral on the hill, towering above the diminished town with so soaring a bulk as to give one a fantastic fear that it is about to lose balance and fall over into the gray roofs of the old town which slide away from it on all sides, pulls one toward it; but one reaches it only through a newer France of straight little boulevards bordered with lines of horsechestnut trees remorselessly trimmed into an interlacing screen whose top forms a line as clean as if some gigantic knife wielded from heaven had sliced over it; through sidewalk cafés, and new red villas, discreetly veiled in tight little gardens by grilled iron fences; through the broad graveled ‘Marché des Chevaux,’ from which a shady boulevard stretches down toward my meadow and viaduct, whence one plunges into narrow old streets, high above which the cathedral seems to struggle as one zigzags one’s way toward it.

But first, what is this soul of a people or of an epoch that imposes so inexorably upon the communities, small and large, from one end of the land to the other, these trimmed trees, these redand-gray houses, this harmonious ‘style’ which makes even the countryside and the woods take an individuality characteristically French: a spirit which seems wholly to disregard any particular choices and tastes of the individuals who are actually moulding these forms for themselves, but rather works impersonally through the most varied temperaments and minds? One explains it all by ‘imitation,’ but that is merely to name it and not to explain it. One never loses one’s wonder, in these foreign scenes, at the way things hang together, so that they seem the very emanation of a sort of vast overspreading communal taste, which makes the little individual tastes of men seem very petty and insignificant. You may have your centuries juxtaposed, as at Chartres, but each one is a harmony, a toughly tenacious fabric of quality, which not only merges material things together into a satisfying whole, but speaks eloquently also of the thought and feelings and attitudes of the time.

As I poked into the old town at Chartres, I asked myself where I had felt before this quaint, gray, quiet atmosphere of the seventeenth century. Where but at Quebec, which has preserved so unquestioningly both the soul and body of the old France? And this soft, flat countryside about Chartres might be the Ile d’Orléans itself, sleeping on the broad bosom of the St. Lawrence. There was something familiarly English also in these little plastered gabled houses, through which the jutting timbers seemed to show how honestly, as it were, the old houses had been holding themselves up through the centuries. Occasionally too there was a touch of something German, reminiscent of earlier centuries still, when, paradoxical as it must seem, Europe had a soul far more international than in our own age, with all its incomparable modes of communication, — of centuries when nationalization had not yet made great headway upon that European nation, culturally speaking, whose homogeneity was the inspiration of the democratic Gothic civilization of the Middle Ages, and which we are just now setting about to reconstruct.

It is a little difficult to imagine modern people living in the quaint streets of Chartres. The holiday gave a Sabbath-like calm to the streets, through which moved only a little procession of orphans, shepherded by careful nuns, or a soldier or two, or English tourists, or families ‘endimanchées.’ Even a modern shop, here and there, decked out with an almost American glitter, did not destroy the provincial calm of the place, prosaic, Catholic, undisturbed, as its life must be.

Progress toward the soaring cathedral was difficult. The streets had the air of twisting themselves through a resisting mass of houses, with a curious indeterminateness of direction. Starting up hill, they would run down again with you, or bring you out suddenly at the top of a long flight of steps, or into a little graveled place by some incredibly worn old church, forlorn and deserted, or upon some curious old house, straddling the sidewalk, and propped up with carved pillars that, might have stood in some old abbey or Gothic ruin. Or one came suddenly on the town hall, as aristocratic in its faded red and buff as some contemporary marshal of Henry of Navarre. Through streets of fantastic names, — Street of the Great Stag, of the Golden Sun, of the White Horse, — one climbed toward the cathedral, and found it gloriously visible, with a ‘place’ before its façade from which one could get the perspective of its noble towers and not lose, as one does at Rouen, the splendor of the soaring piles in irritatingly diminished foreshortening.

What must have been the soul — not of the people, for they were but tools of a spirit — but of the community that raised this splendid bulk, now so sombrely gray and worn, its great blocks of stone curiously punctured, as if Time had been gnawing away at them? If it was the madness of fanaticism that caused the peasants to yoke themselves to the carts and drag the stones to rebuild their church in the twelfth century, what a divine madness, and how divine the reach and imagination of that social soul of theirs which inspired this splendid form! The contrast between the flaming splendors of these French facades and portals and the primitive squalor of the decaying houses at the foot of the cathedrals is eloquent of a time when it must really have been believed — O miracle of the Western world! — that the body and its comforts were as nothing, and only the soul had life. There is an austerity in this façade of Chartres that is absent from the flamboyant northern cathedrals; but the delicate perfection of the north tower, and the noble proportions of the south tower, quite unlike the north one but beautifully complementary to it, invest the whole picture with an incomparable gravity and sweetness, a richly sincere nobility.

Through a little portal at the side of the great gloomy wooden doors, ironclad as if for a castle rather than a church, I slipped into the overpowering majesty of the vaulted nave. In this rich Rembrandtian duskiness the eye only gradually distinguishes the superb march of the fluted columns down its broad and majestic length to the beautiful choir, on which all the light seems to converge, touching softly its gray lines which carry the eye up until they are lost in the vaulting above. The air of the nave was very thick and heavy; it seemed almost to lave the heavy columns and to flow into the dark side aisles. Whatever light filtered into them was shut from the nave by these columns, which, heavy as they were, fitted themselves in perfect purity of proportion to the vast spaciousness of height and breadth. The nave is one majestic dim vestibule before the lighted transept and choir. In no other church have I seen this sense of composition, this superb convergence and directness of aim. The soaring interior was a unity, and all the parts flowed together in concentration upon the supremely beautiful choir.

In this majestic vitality of Chartres, there was something infinitely mournful in the inevitable band of black-bonneted old women performing their devotions before the altars. After dozens of European churches, they have come to represent for me a sort of symbol of the receding Catholic religion; these vacant-faced, tragic old creatures seem a sort of last desperate bulwark against the encroachments of the modern spirit. If the old cathedral could think, would it not feel a touch of sad irony that its majesty, so unimpairedly human and divine, should have found little more serviceable use to-day than to quiet the fears and minister to the feeble hopes of these poor old creatures? Would it not desire to see the soul of the community at its feet grow superb enough again to learn how to use it worthily and magnificently for the glory of humanity?