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Chapter 46

A GLIMPSE OF NORMANDY.


After a residence of five weeks, which, in spite of some few troubles, passed away quickly and delightfully, I turned my back on Paris. It was not regret I experienced on taking my seat in the cars for Versailles, but that feeling of reluctance with which we leave places whose brightness and gaiety force the mind away from serious toil. Steam, however, cuts short all sentiment, and in much less time than it takes to bid farewell to a German, we had whizzed past the Place d'Europe, through the barrier, and were watching the spires start up from the receding city, on the way to St. Cloud.

At Versailles I spent three hours in a hasty walk through the palace, which allowed but a bare glance at the gorgeous paintings of Horace Vernet. His "Taking of Constantine" has the vivid look of reality. The white houses shine in the sun, and from the bleached earth to the blue and dazzling sky, there seems to hang a heavy, scorching atmosphere. The white smoke of the artillery curls almost visibly off the canvass, and the cracked and half-sprung walls look as if about to topple down on the besiegers. One series of halls is devoted to the illustration of the knightly chronicles of France, from the days of Charlemagne to those of Bayard and Gaston de Foix. Among these pictured legends, I looked with the deepest interest on that of the noble girl of Orleans. Her countenance--the same in all these pictures and in a beautiful statue of her, which stands in one of the corridors--is said to be copied from an old and well-authenticated portrait. United to the sweetness and purity of peasant beauty, she has the lofty brow and inspired expression of a prophetess. There is a soft light in her full blue eye that does not belong to earth. I wonder not the soldiery deemed her chosen by God to lead them to successful battle; had I lived in those times I could have followed her consecrated banner to the ends of the earth. In the statue, she stands musing, with her head drooping forward, as if the weight of the breastplate oppressed her woman's heart; the melancholy soul which shines through the marble seems to forebode the fearful winding-up of her eventful destiny.

The afternoon was somewhat advanced, by the time I had seen the palace and gardens. After a hurried dinner at a restaurant, I shouldered my knapsack and took the road to St. Germain. The day was gloomy and cheerless, and I should have felt very lonely but for the thought of soon reaching England. There is no time of the year more melancholy than a cold, cloudy day in March; whatever may be the beauties of pedestrian traveling in fairer seasons, my experience dictates that during winter storms and March glooms, it had better be dispensed with. However, I pushed on to St. Germain, threaded its long streets, looked down from the height over its magnificent tract of forest and turned westward down the Seine. Owing to the scantiness of villages, I was obliged to walk an hour and a half in the wind and darkness, before I reached a solitary inn. As I opened the door and asked for lodging, the landlady inquired if I had the necessary papers. I answered in the affirmative and was admitted. While I was eating supper, they prepared their meal on the other end of the small table and sat down together. They fell into the error, so common to ignorant persons, of thinking a foreigner could not understand them, and began talking quite unconcernedly about me. "Why don't he take the railroad?" said the old man: "he must have very little money--it would be bad for us if he had none." "Oh!" remarked his son, "if he had none, he would not be sitting there so quiet and unconcerned." I thought there was some knowledge of human nature in this remark. "And besides," added the landlady, "there is no danger for us, for we have his passport." Of course I enjoyed this in secret, and mentally pardoned their suspicions, when I reflected that the high roads between Paris and London are frequented by many imposters, which makes the people naturally mistrustful. I walked all the next day through a beautiful and richly cultivated country. The early fruit trees were bursting into bloom, and the farmers led out their cattle to pasturage in the fresh meadows. The scenery must be delightful in summer--worthy of all that has been said or sung about lovely Normandy. On the morning of the third day, before reaching Rouen, I saw at a distance the remains of Chateau Galliard, the favorite castle of Richard Coeur de Lion. Rouen breathes everywhere of the ancient times of Normandy. Nothing can be more picturesque than its quaint, irregular wooden houses, and the low, mossy mills, spanning the clear streams which rush through its streets. The Cathedral, with its four towers, rises from among the clustered cottages like a giant rook, split by the lightning and worn by the rains of centuries is into a thousand fantastic shapes.

Resuming my walk in the afternoon, I climbed the heights west of the city, and after passing through a suburb four or five miles in length, entered the vale of the Cailly. This is one of the sweetest scenes in France. It lies among the woody hills like a Paradise, with its velvet meadows and villas and breathing gardens. The grass was starred with daisies and if I took a step into the oak and chesnut woods, I trampled on thousands of anemones and fragrant daffodils. The upland plain, stretching inward from the coast, wears a different character. As I ascended, towards evening, and walked over its monotonous swells, I felt almost homesick beneath its saddening influence. The sun, hazed over with dull clouds, gave out that cold and lifeless light which is more lonely than complete darkness. The wind, sweeping dismally over the fields, sent clouds of blinding dust down the road, and as it passed through the forests, the myriads of fine twigs sent up a sound as deep and grand as the roar of a roused ocean. Every chink of the Norman cottage where I slept, whistled most drearily, and as I looked out the little window of my room, the trees were swaying in the gloom, and long, black clouds scudded across the sky. Though my bed was poor and hard, it was a sublime sound that cradled me into slumber. Homer might have used it as the lullaby of Jove.

My last day on the continent came. I rose early and walked over the hills towards Dieppe. The scenery grew more bleak as I approached the sea, but the low and sheltered valleys preserved the pastoral look of the interior. In the afternoon, as I climbed a long, elevated ridge, over which a strong northwester was blowing, I was struck with a beautiful rustic church, in one of the dells below me. While admiring its neat tower I had gained unconsciously the summit of the hill, and on turning suddenly around, lo! there was the glorious old Atlantic stretching far before and around me! A shower was sweeping mistily along the horizon and I could trace the white line of the breakers that foamed at the foot of the cliffs. The scene came over me like a vivid electric shock, and I gave an involuntary shout, which might have been heard in all the valleys around. After a year and a half of wandering over the continent, that gray ocean was something to be revered and loved, for it clasped the shores of my native America.

I entered Dieppe in a heavy shower, and after finding an inn suited to my means and obtaining a permis d'embarquement from the police office, I went out to the battlements and looked again on the sea. The landlord promised to call me in time for the boat, but my anxiety waked me sooner, and mistaking the strokes of the cathedral bell, I shouldered my knapsack and went down to the wharf at one o'clock. No one was stirring on board the boat, and I was obliged to pace the silent, gloomy streets of the town for two hours. I watched the steamer glide out on the rainy channel, and turning into the topmost berth, drew the sliding curtain and strove to keep out cold and sea-sickness. But it was unavailing; a heavy storm of snow and rain rendered our passage so dreary that I did not stir until we were approaching the chain pier of Brighton.

I looked out on the foggy shores of England with a feeling of relief; my tongue would now be freed from the difficult bondage of foreign languages, and my ears be rejoiced with the music of my own. After two hours' delay at the Custom House, I took my seat in an open car for London. The day was dull and cold; the sun resembled a milky blotch in the midst of a leaden sky. I sat and shivered, as we flew onward, amid the rich, cultivated English scenery. At last the fog grew thicker; the road was carried over the tops of houses; the familiar dome of St. Paul's stood out above the spires; and I was again in London!


Bayard Taylor