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Chapter 16

LETTER XVI.

Environs of Paris.—Village of St. Ouen.—Our House there.—Life on the
River.—Parisian Cockneys.—A pretty Grisette.—Voyage across the Seine.
—A rash Adventurer.—Village Fête.—Montmorency.—View near Paris.

TO JAMES STEVENSON, ESQUIRE, ALBANY.

We have been the residents of a French village ever since the 1st of June, and it is now drawing to the close of October. We had already passed the greater part of a summer, and entire autumn, winter and spring, within the walls of Paris, and then we thought we might indulge our tastes a little, by retreating to the fields, to catch a glimpse of country life. You will smile when I add that we are only a league from the Barrière de Clichy. This is the reason I have not before spoken of the removal, for we are in town three or four times every week, and never miss an occasion, when there is anything to be seen. I shall now proceed, however, to let you into the secret of our actual situation.

I passed the month of May examining the environs of the capital in quest of an house. As this was an agreeable occupation, we were in no hurry; but having set up my cabriolet, we killed two birds with one stone, by making ourselves familiarly acquainted with nearly every village or hamlet within three leagues of Paris, a distance beyond which I did not wish to go.

On the side of St. Cloud, which embraces Passy, Auteuil, and all the places that encircle the Bois de Boulogne, the Hyde Park of Paris, there are very many pleasant residences, but from one cause or another, no one suited us exactly, and we finally took a house in the village of St. Ouen, the Runnymeade of France. When Louis XVIII. came, in 1814, to his capital, in the rear of the allies, he stopped for a few days at St. Ouen, a league from the barriers, where there was a small chateau that was the property of the crown. Here he was met by M. de Talleyrand and others, and hence he issued the celebrated charter, that is to render France for evermore a constitutional country.

The chateau has since been razed, and a pavilion erected in its place, which has been presented to the Comtesse de ——, a lady who, reversing the ordinary lot of courtiers, is said to cause majesty to live in the sunshine of her smiles. What an appropriate and encouraging monument to rear on the birth-place of French liberty! At the opposite extremity of the village is another considerable house, that was once the dwelling of M. Necker, and is now the property and country residence of M. Ternaux, or the Baron Ternaux, if it were polite to style him thus, the most celebrated manufacturer of France. I say polite, for the mere fanfaronnade of nobility is little in vogue here. The wags tell a story of some one, who was formally announced as "Monsieur le Marquis d'un tel," turning short round on the servant, and exclaiming with indignation, "Marquis toi-même!" But this story savours of the Bonapartists; for as the Emperor created neither marquis nor vicomtes, there was a sort of affectation of assuming these titles at the restoration as proofs of belonging to the old régime.

St. Ouen is a cluster of small, mean, stone houses, stretched along the right bank of the Seine, which, after making a circuit of near twenty miles, winds round so close to the town again, that they are actually constructing a basin, near the village, for the use of the capital; it being easier to wheel articles from this point to Paris, than to contend with the current and to tread its shoals. In addition to the two houses named, however, it has six or eight respectable abodes between the street and the river, one of which is our own.

This place became a princely residence about the year 1800, since which time it has been more or less frequented as such down to the 4th June, 1814, the date of the memorable charter.[21] Madame de Pompadour possessed the chateau in 1745, so you see it has been "dust to dust" with this place, as with all that is frail.

[Footnote 21: The chateau of St. Ouen, rather less than two centuries since, passed into the possession of the Duc de Gesvre. Dulaure gives the following,—a part of a letter from this nobleman,—as a specimen of the education of a duc in the seventeenth century:—"Monsieur, me trouvant obligé de randre une bonne party de largan que mais enfant ont pris de peuis qu'il sont au campane, monsieur, cela moblige a vous suplier tres humblemant monsieur de me faire la grasse de commander monsieur quant il vous plera que lon me pay la capitenery de Monsaux monsieur vous asseurant que vous mobligeres fort sansiblement monsieur comme ausy de me croire avec toute sorte de respec, etc." This beats Jack Cade out and out. The great connétable Anne de Montmorency could not write his name, and as his signature became necessary, his secretary stood over his shoulder to tell him when he had made enough piès de mouche to answer the purpose.]

The village of St. Ouen, small, dirty, crowded and unsavoury as it is, has a place, like every other French village. When we drove into it, to look at the house, I confess to having laughed outright, at the idea of inhabiting such a hole. Two large portes-cochères, however, opened from the square, and we were admitted, through the best-looking of the two, into a spacious and an extremely neat court. On one side of the gate was a lodge for a porter, and on the other, a building to contain gardeners' tools, plants, etc. The walls that separate it from the square and the adjoining gardens are twelve or fourteen feet high, and once within them, the world is completely excluded. The width of the grounds does not exceed a hundred and fifty feet; the length, the form being that of a parallelogram, may be three hundred, or a little more; and yet in these narrow limits, which are planted à l'Anglaise, so well is everything contrived, that we appear to have abundance of room. The garden terminates in a terrace that overhangs the river, and, from this point, the eye ranges over a wide extent of beautiful plain, that is bounded by fine bold hills which are teeming with gray villages and bourgs.

The house is of stone, and not without elegance. It may be ninety feet in length, by some forty in width. The entrance is into a vestibule, which has the offices on the right, and the great staircase on the left. The principal salon is in front. This is a good room, near thirty feet long, fifteen or sixteen high, and has three good windows, that open on the garden. The billiard-room communicates on one side, and the salle à manger on the other; next the latter come the offices again, and next the billiard-room is a very pretty little boudoir. Up stairs, are suites of bed-rooms and dressing-rooms; every thing is neat, and the house is in excellent order, and well furnished for a country residence. Now, all this I get at a hundred dollars a month, for the five summer months. There are also a carriage-house, and stabling for three horses. The gardener and porter are paid by the proprietor. The village, however, is not in much request, and the rent is thought to be low.

Among the great advantages enjoyed by a residence in Europe, are the facilities of this nature. Furnished apartments, or furnished houses, can be had in almost every town of any size; and, owning your own linen and plate, nearly every other necessary is found you. It is true, that one sometimes misses comforts to which he has been accustomed in his own house; but, in France, many little things are found, it is not usual to meet with elsewhere. Thus, no principal bedroom is considered properly furnished in a good house, without a handsome secretary, and a bureau. These two articles are as much matters of course, as are the eternal two rooms and folding doors, in New York.

This, then, has been our Tusculum since June. M. Ternaux enlivens the scene, occasionally, by a dinner; and he has politely granted us permission to walk in his grounds, which are extensive and well laid out, for the old French style. We have a neighbour on our left, name unknown, who gives suppers in his garden, and concerts that really are worthy of the grand opera. Occasionally, we get a song, in a female voice, that rivals the best of Madame Malibran's. On our right lives a staid widow, whose establishment is as tranquil as our own.

One of our great amusements is to watch the living life on the river, —there is no still life in France. All the washerwomen of the village assemble, three days in the week, beneath our terrace, and a merrier set of grisettes is not to be found in the neighbourhood of Paris. They chat, and joke, and splash, and scream from morning to night, lightening the toil by never-ceasing good humour. Occasionally an enormous scow-like barge is hauled up against the current, by stout horses, loaded to the water's edge, or one, without freight, comes dropping down the stream, nearly filling the whole river as it floats broad-side to. There are three or four islands opposite, and, now and then, a small boat is seen paddling among them. We have even tried punting ourselves, but the amusement was soon exhausted.

Sunday is a great day with us, for then the shore is lined with Parisians, as thoroughly cockney as if Bow-bells could be heard in the Quartier Montmartre! These good people visit us, in all sorts of ways; some on donkeys, some in cabriolets, some in fiacres, and by far the larger portion on foot. They are perfectly inoffensive and unobtrusive, being, in this respect, just as unlike an American inroad from a town as can well be. These crowds pass vineyards on their way to us, unprotected by any fences. This point in the French character, however, about which so much has been said to our disadvantage, as well as to that of the English, is subject to some explanation. The statues, promenades, gardens, etc. etc. are, almost without exception, guarded by sentinels; and then there are agents of the police, in common clothes, scattered through the towns, in such numbers as to make depredations hazardous. In the country each commune has one, or more, gardes champêtres, whose sole business it is to detect and arrest trespassers. When to these are added the gendarmes à pied and à cheval, who are constantly in motion, one sees that the risk of breaking the laws is attended with more hazard here than with us. There is no doubt, on the other hand, that the training and habits, produced by such a system of watchfulness, enter so far into the character of the people, that they cease to think of doing that which is so strenuously denied them.

Some of our visitors make their appearance in a very quaint style. I met a party the other day, among whom the following family arrangement had obtained:—The man was mounted on a donkey, with his feet just clear of the ground. The wife, a buxom brunette, was trudging afoot in the rear, accompanied by the two younger children, a boy and girl, between twelve and fourteen, led by a small dog, fastened to a string like the guide of a blind mendicant; while the eldest daughter was mounted on the crupper, maintaining her equilibrium by a masculine disposition of her lower limbs. She was a fine, rosy-cheeked grisette, of about seventeen; and, as they ambled along, just fast enough to keep the cur on a slow trot, her cap flared in the wind, her black eyes flashed with pleasure, and her dark ringlets streamed behind her, like so many silken pennants. She had a ready laugh for every one she met, and a sort of malicious pleasure in asking, by her countenance, if they did not wish they too had a donkey? As the seat was none of the most commodious, she had contrived to make a pair of stirrups of her petticoats. The gown was pinned up about her waist, leaving her knees, instead of her feet, as the points d'appui. The well-turned legs, and the ankles, with such a chaussure as at once marks a Parisienne, were exposed to the admiration of a parterre of some hundreds of idle wayfarers. Truly, it is no wonder that sculptors abound in this country, for capital models are to be found, even in the highways. The donkey was the only one who appeared displeased with this monture, and he only manifested dissatisfaction by lifting his hinder extremities a little, as the man occasionally touched his flanks with a nettle, that the ass would much rather have been eating.

Not long since I passed half an hour on the terrace, an amused witness of the perils of a voyage across the Seine in a punt. The adventurers were a bourgeois, his wife, sister, and child. Honest Pierre, the waterman, had conditioned to take the whole party to the island opposite and to return them safe to the main for the modicum of five sous. The old fox invariably charged me a franc for the same service. There was much demurring, and many doubts about encountering the risk; and more than once the women would have receded, had not the man treated the matter as a trifle. He affirmed parole d'honneur that his father had crossed the Maine a dozen times, and no harm had come of it! This encouraged them, and, with many pretty screams, mes fois, and oh, Dieu, they finally embarked. The punt was a narrow scow that a ton weight would not have disturbed, the river was so low and sluggish that it might have been forded two-thirds of the distance, and the width was not three hundred feet. Pierre protested that the danger was certainly not worth mentioning, and away he went, as philosophical in appearance as his punt. The voyage was made in safety, and the bows of the boat had actually touched the shore on its return, before any of the passengers ventured to smile. The excursion, like most travelling, was likely to be most productive of happiness by the recollections. But the women were no sooner landed, than that rash adventurer, the husband, brother, and father, seized an oar, and began to ply it with all his force. He merely wished to tell his confrères of the Rue Montmartre how a punt might be rowed. Pierre had gallantly landed to assist the ladies, and the boat, relieved of its weight, slowly yielded to the impulse of the oar, and inclined its bows from the land. "Oh! Edouard! mon mari! mon frère!—que fais-tu?" exclaimed the ladies. "Ce n'est rien," returned the man, puffing, and giving another lusty sweep, by which he succeeded in forcing the punt fully twenty feet from the shore. "Edouard! cher Edouard!" "Laisse-moi m'amuser,—je m'amuse, je m'amuse," cried the husband in a tone of indignant remonstrance. But Edouard, a tight, sleek little épicier, of about five-and-thirty, had never heard that an oar on each side was necessary in a boat, and the harder he pulled the less likely was he to regain the shore. Of this he began to be convinced, as he whirled more into the centre of the current; and his efforts now really became frantic, for his imagination probably painted the horrors of a distant voyage in an unknown bark to an unknown land, and all without food or compass. The women screamed, and the louder they cried, the more strenuously he persevered in saying, "Laisse-moi m'amuser—je m'amuse, je m'amuse." By this time the perspiration poured from the face of Edouard, and I called to the imperturbable Pierre, who stood in silent admiration of his punt while playing such antics, and desired him to tell the man to put his oar on the bottom, and to push the boat ashore. "Oui, Monsieur," said the rogue, with a leer, for he remembered the francs, and we soon had our adventurer safe on terra firma again. Then began the tender expostulations, the affectionate reproaches, and the kind injunctions for the truant to remember that he was a husband and a father. Edouard, secretly cursing the punt and all rivers in his heart, made light of the matter, however, protesting to the last that he had only been enjoying himself.

We have had a fête too; for every village in the vicinity of Paris has its fête. The square was filled with whirligigs and flying-horses, and all the ingenious contrivances of the French to make and to spend a sou pleasantly. There was service in the parish church, at which our neighbours sang in a style fit for St. Peter's, and the villagers danced quadrilles on the green with an air that would be thought fine in many a country drawing-room.

I enjoy all this greatly; for, to own the truth, the crowds and mannered sameness of Paris began to weary me. Our friends occasionally come from town to see us, and we make good use of the cabriolet. As we are near neighbours to St. Denis, we have paid several visits to the tombs of the French kings, and returned each time less pleased with most of the unmeaning obsequies that are observed in their vaults. There was a ceremony, not long since, at which the royal family and many of the great officers of the court assisted, and among others M. de Talleyrand. The latter was in the body of the church, when a man rushed upon him and actually struck him, or shoved him to the earth, using at the same time language that left no doubt of the nature of the assault. There are strange rumours connected with the affair. The assailant was a Marquis de ——, and it is reported that his wrongs, real or imaginary, are connected with a plot to rob one of the dethroned family of her jewels, or of some crown jewels, I cannot say which, at the epoch of the restoration. The journals said a good deal about it at the time, but events occur so fast here that a quarrel of this sort produces little sensation. I pretend to no knowledge of the merits of this affair, and only give a general outline of what was current in the public prints at the time.

We have also visited Enghien, and Montmorency. The latter, as you know already, stands on the side of a low mountain, in plain view of Paris. It is a town of some size, with very uneven streets, some of them being actually sharp acclivities, and a Gothic church that is seen from afar and that is well worth viewing near by. These quaint edifices afford us deep delight, by their antiquity, architecture, size, and pious histories. What matters it to us how much or how little superstition may blend with the rites, when we know and feel that we are standing in a nave that has echoed with orisons to God, for a thousand years! This of Montmorency is not quite so old, however, having been rebuilt only three centuries since.

Dulaure, a severe judge of aristocracy, denounces the pretension of the Montmorencies to be the Premiers Barons Chrétiens, affirming that they were neither the first barons, nor the first Christians, by a great many. He says, that the extravagant title has most probably been a war-cry, in the time of the crusaders. According to his account of the family it originated, about the year 1008, in a certain Borchard, who, proving a bad neighbour to the Abbey of St. Denis, the vassals of which he was in the habit of robbing, besides, now and then, despoiling a monk, the king caused his fortress in the Isle St. Denis to be razed; after which, by a treaty, he was put in possession of the mountain hard by, with permission to erect another hold near a fountain, at a place called in the charters, Montmorenciacum. Hence the name, and the family. This writer thinks that the first castle must have been built of wood!

We took a road that led us up to a bluff on the mountain, behind the town, where we obtained a new and very peculiar view of Paris and its environs. I have said that the French towns have no straggling suburbs. A few winehouses (to save the octroi) are built near the gates, compactly, as in the town itself, and there the buildings cease as suddenly as if pared down by a knife. The fields touch the walls, in many places, and between St. Ouen and the guinguettes and winehouses, at the Barrière de Clichy, a distance of two miles, there is but a solitary building. A wide plain separates Paris, on this side, from the mountains, and of course our view extended across it. The number of villages was absolutely astounding. Although I did not attempt counting them, I should think not fewer than a hundred were in sight, all grey, picturesque, and clustering round the high nave and church tower, like chickens gathering beneath the wing. The day was clouded, and the hamlets rose from their beds of verdure, sombre but distinct, with their faces of wall, now in subdued light, and now quite shaded, resembling the glorious darks of Rembrandt's pictures.

James Fenimore Cooper

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