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Chapter 20

LETTER XX.

Excursion with Lafayette.—Vincennes.—The Donjon.—Lagrange.—The
Towers.—Interior of the House—the General's Apartments.—the Cabinet.
—Lafayette's Title.—Church of the Chateau.—Ruins of Vivier.—Roman
Remains.—American Curiosity.—The Table at Lagrange.—Swindling.

To R. COOPER, ESQ. COOPERSTOWN.

I have said nothing to you of Lagrange, though I have now been there no less than three times. Shortly after our arrival in Paris, General Lafayette had the kindness to send us an invitation; but we were deterred from going for sometime, by the indisposition of one of the family. In the autumn of 1826, I went, however, alone; in the spring I went again, carrying Mrs. —— with me; and I have now just returned from a third visit, in which I went with my wife, accompanied by one or two more of the family.

It is about twenty-seven miles from Paris to Rosay, a small town that is a league from the castle. This is not a post-route, the great road ending at Rosay, and we were obliged to go the whole distance with the same horses. Paris is left by the Boulevard de la Bastille, the Barrière du Trône, and the chateau and woods of Vincennes. The second time I went into Brie, it was with the General himself, and in his own carriage. He showed me a small pavilion that is still standing in a garden near the old site of the Bastille, and which he told me, once belonged to the hotel that Beaumarchais inhabited, when in his glory, and in which pavilion this witty writer was accustomed to work. The roof was topped by a vane to show which way the wind blew; and, in pure fanfaronnade, or to manifest his contempt for principles, the author of "Figaro" had caused a large copper pen to do the duty of a weathercock; and there it stands to this day, a curious memorial equally of his wit and of his audacity.

At the Barrière du Trône the General pointed out to me the spot where two of his female connexions suffered under the guillotine during the Reign of Terror. On one occasion, in passing, we entered the Castle of Vincennes, which is a sort of citadel for Paris, and which has served for a state prison since the destruction of the Bastille. Almost all of these strong old places were formerly the residences of the kings, or of great nobles, the times requiring that they should live constantly protected by ditches and walls.

Vincennes, like the Tower of London, is a collection of old buildings, enclosed within a wall, and surrounded by a ditch. The latter, however, is dry. The most curious of the structures, and the one which gives the place its picturesque appearance, in the distance, is a cluster of exceedingly slender, tall, round towers, in which the prisoners are usually confined, and which is the donjon of the hold. This building, which contains many vaulted rooms piled on each other, was formerly the royal abode; and it has, even now, a ditch of its own, though it stands within the outer walls of the place. There are many other high towers on the walls; and, until the reign of Napoleon, there were still more; but he caused them to be razed to the level of the walls, which of themselves are sufficiently high.

The chapel is a fine building, being Gothic. It was constructed in the time of Charles V. There are also two or three vast corps de bâtimens, which are almost palaces in extent and design, though they are now used only as quarters for officers, etc. etc. The donjon dates from the same reign. The first room in this building is called the "salle de la question," a name which sufficiently denotes its infernal use. That of the upper story is the room in which the kings of France formerly held their councils. The walls are sixteen feet thick, and the rooms are thirty feet high. As there are five stories, this donjon cannot be less than a hundred and forty or fifty feet in elevation. The view from the summit is very extensive; though it is said that, in the time of Napoleon, a screen was built around the battlement, to prevent the prisoners, when they took the air, from enjoying it. As this conqueror was cruel from policy alone, it is probable this was merely a precaution against signals; for it is quite apparent, if he desired, to torment his captives, France has places better adapted to the object than even the donjon of Vincennes. I am not his apologist, however; for, while I shall not go quite as far as the Englishman who maintained, in a laboured treatise, that Napoleon was the beast of the Revelations, I believe he was anything but a god.

Vincennes was a favourite residence of St. Louis, and there is a tradition that he used to take his seat under a particular oak, in the adjoining forest, where, all who pleased were permitted to come before him, and receive justice from himself. Henry V. of England, died in the donjon of Vincennes; and I believe his successor, Henry VI. was born in the same building. One gets a better notion of the state of things in the ages of feudality, by passing an hour in examining such a hold, than in a week's reading. After going through this habitation, and studying its barbarous magnificence, I feel much more disposed to believe that Shakspeare has not outraged probability in his dialogue between Henry and Catharine, than if I had never seen it, bad as that celebrated love-scene is.

Shortly after quitting Vincennes the road crosses the Marne, and stretches away across a broad bottom. There is little of interest between Paris and Rosay. The principal house is that of Grosbois, which once belonged to Moreau, I believe, but is now the property of the Prince de Wagram, the young son of Berthier. The grounds are extensive, and the house is large, though I think neither in very good taste, at least, so far as one could judge in passing.

There are two or three ruins on this road of some historical interest, but not of much beauty. There is usually a nakedness, unrelieved by trees or other picturesque accessories, about the French ruins, which robs them of half their beauty, and dirty, squalid hamlets and villages half the time come in to render the picture still less interesting.

At Rosay another route is taken, and Lagrange is approached by the rear, after turning a small bit of wood. It is possible to see the tops of the towers for an instant, on the great road, before reaching the town.

It is not certainly known in what age the chateau was built; but, from its form, and a few facts connected with its origin, whose dates are ascertained, it is thought to be about five hundred years old. It never was more than a second-rate building of its class, though it was clearly intended for a baronial hold. Originally, the name was Lagrange en Brie; but by passing into a new family, it got the appellation of Lagrange Bléneau, by which it is known at present. You are sufficiently familiar with French to understand that grange means barn or granary, and that a liberal translation would make it Bléneau Farm.

In 1399 a marriage took place between the son of the lord of Lagrange en Brie with a daughter of a branch of the very ancient and great family of Courtenay, which had extensive possessions, at that time, in Brie. It was this marriage which gave the new name to the castle, the estate in consequence passing into the line of Courtenay-Bléneau. In 1595, the property, by another marriage with an heiress, passed into the well-known family D'Aubussons, Comtes de la Feuillade. The first proprietor of this name was the grandfather of the Mareschal de la Feuillade, the courtier who caused the Place des Victoires to be constructed at Paris; and he appropriated the revenues of the estate, which, in 1686, were valued at nine thousand francs, to the support and completion of his work of flattery. The property at that time was, however, much more extensive than it is at present. The son of this courtier dying without issue, in 1726, the estate was purchased by M. Dupré, one of the judges of France.

With this magistrate commences, I believe, the connexion of the ancestors of the Lafayettes with the property. The only daughter married M. d'Aguesseau; and her daughter, again, married the Duc de Noailles-d'Ayen, [29] carrying with her, as a marriage portion, the lands of Fontenay, Lagrange, etc. etc., or, in other words, the ancient possessions of M. de Lafeuillade. The Marquis de Lafayette married one of the Mesdemoiselles de Noailles, while he was still a youth, and when the estate, after a short sequestration, was restored to the family, General Lafayette received the chateau of Lagrange, with some six or eight hundred acres of land around it, as his wife's portion.

[Footnote 29: Mr. Adams, in his Eulogy on Lafayette, has called the Duc de Noailles, the first peer of France. The fact is of no great moment, but accuracy is always better than error. I believe the Duc de Noailles was the youngest of the old ducs et pairs of France. The Duc d'Uzès, I have always understood, was the oldest.]

Although the house is not very spacious for a chateau of the region in which it stands, it is a considerable edifice, and one of the most picturesque I have seen in this country. The buildings stand on three sides of an irregular square. The fourth side must have been either a high wall or a range of low offices formerly, to complete the court and the defences, but every vestige of them has long since been removed. The ditch, too, which originally encircled the whole castle, has been filled in, on two sides, though still remaining on the two others, and greatly contributing to the beauty of the place, as the water is living, and is made to serve the purposes of a fishpond. We had carp from it, for breakfast, the day after our arrival.

Lagrange is constructed of hewn stone, of a good greyish colour, and in parts of it there are some respectable pretensions to architecture. I think it probable that one of its fronts has been rebuilt, the style being so much better than the rest of the structure. There are five towers, all of which are round, and have the plain, high, pyramidal roof, so common in France. They are without cornices, battlements of any sort, or, indeed, any relief to the circular masonry. One, however, has a roof of a square form, though the exterior of the lower itself is, at least in part, round. All the roofs are of slate.

The approach to the castle is circuitous, until quite near it, when the road enters a little thicket of evergreens, crosses a bridge, and passes beneath an arch to the court, which is paved. The bridge is now permanent, though there was once a draw, and the grooves of a portcullis are still visible beneath the arch. The shortest side of the square is next the bridge, the building offering here but little more than the two towers, and the room above the gateway. One of these towers forms the end of this front of the castle, and the other is, of course, at an angle. On the exterior, they are both buried in ivy, as well as the building which connects them. This ivy was planted by Charles Fox, who, in company with General Fitzpatrick, visited Lagrange, after the peace of Amiens. The windows, which are small and irregular on this side, open beautifully through the thick foliage, and as this is the part of the structure that is occupied by the children of the family, their blooming faces thrust through the leafy apertures have a singularly pleasing effect. The other three towers stand, one near the centre of the principal corps de bâtiment, one at the other angle, and the third at the end of the wing opposite that of the gate. The towers vary in size, and are all more or less buried in the walls, though still so distinct as greatly to relieve the latter, and everywhere to rise above them. On the open side of the court there is no ditch, but the ground, which is altogether park-like, and beautifully arranged, falls away, dotted with trees and copses, towards a distant thicket.

Besides the rez-de-chaussée, which is but little above the ground, there are two good stories all round the building, and even more in the towers. The dining-room and offices are below, and there is also a small oratory, or chapel, though I believe none of the family live there. The entrance to the principal apartments is opposite the gate, and there is also here an exterior door which communicates directly with the lawn, the ditch running behind the other wing, and in front of the gate only. The great staircase is quite good, being spacious, easy of ascent, and of marble, with a handsome iron railing. It was put there by the mother of Madame Lafayette, I believe, and the General told me, it was nearly the only thing of value that he found among the fixtures, on taking possession. It had escaped injury.

I should think the length of the house on the side of the square which contains the staircase might be ninety feet, including the tower at the end, and the tower at the angle; and perhaps the side which contains the offices may be even a little longer; though this will also include the same tower in the same angle, as well as the one at the opposite corner; while the side in which is the gateway can scarcely exceed sixty feet. If my estimates, which are merely made by the eye, are correct, including the towers, this would give an outside wall of two hundred and fifty feet, in circuit. Like most French buildings, the depth is comparatively much less. I question if the outer drawing-room is more than eighteen feet wide, though it is near thirty long. This room has windows on the court and on the lawn, and is the first apartment one enters after ascending the stairs. It communicates with the inner drawing-room, which is in the end tower of this side of the chateau, is quite round, of course, and may be twenty feet in diameter.

The General's apartments are on the second floor. They consist of his bed-room, a large cabinet, and the library. The latter is in the tower at the angle, on the side of the staircase. It is circular, and from its windows overlooks the moat, which is beautifully shaded by willows and other trees. It contains a respectable collection of books, besides divers curiosities.

The only bed-rooms I have occupied are, one in the tower, immediately beneath the library, and the other in the side tower, or the only one which does not stand at an angle, or at an end of the building. I believe, however, that the entire edifice, with the exception of the oratory, the offices, the dining-room, which is a large apartment on the rez-de-chaussée, the two drawing-rooms, two or three cabinets, and the library, and perhaps a family-room or two, such as a school-room, painting-room, etc., is subdivided into sleeping apartments, with the necessary cabinets and dressing-rooms. Including the family, I have known thirty people to be lodged in the house, besides servants, and I should think it might even lodge more. Indeed its hospitality seems to know no limits, for every newcomer appears to be just as welcome as all the others.

The cabinet of Lafayette communicates with the library, and I passed much of the time during our visit, alone with him, in these two rooms. I may say that this was the commencement of a confidence with which he has since continued to treat me, and of a more intimate knowledge of the amiable features and simple integrity of his character, that has greatly added to my respect. No one can be pleasanter in private, and he is full of historical anecdotes, that he tells with great simplicity, and frequently with great humour. The cabinet contains many portraits, and, among others, one of Madame de Staël, and one of his own father. The former I am assured is exceedingly like; it is not the resemblance of a very fascinating woman. In the latter I find more resemblance to some of the grandchildren than to the son, although there is something about the shape of the head that is not unlike that of Lafayette's.

General Lafayette never knew his father, who was killed, when he was quite an infant, at the battle of Minden. I believe the general was an only child, for I have never heard him speak of any brother or sister, nor indeed of any relative at all, as I can remember, on his own side, though he often alludes to the connexions he made by his marriage. I asked him how his father happened to be styled the Comte de Lafayette, and he to be called the Marquis. He could not tell me: his grandfather was the Marquis de Lafayette, his father the Comte, and he again was termed the Marquis. "I know very little about it," said be, "beyond this: I found myself a little Marquis, as I grew to know anything, and boys trouble themselves very little about such matters; and then I soon got tired of the name after I went to America. I cannot explain all the foolish distinctions of the feudal times, but I very well remember that when I was quite a boy, I had the honour to go through the ceremony of appointing the curé of a very considerable town in Auvergne, of which I was the Seigneur. My conscience has been quite easy about the nomination, however, as my guardians must answer for the sin, if there be any."

I was at a small dinner given by the Comte de Ségur, just before we went to Lagrange, and at which General Lafayette and M. Alexander de Lameth were also guests. The three had served in America, all of them having been colonels while little more than boys. In the course of the conversation, M. de Lameth jokingly observed that the Americans paid the greater deference to General Lafayette because he was a Marquis. For a long time there had been but one Marquis in England (Lord Rockingham), and the colonist appreciating all other Marquises by this standard, had at once thought they would do no less than make the Marquis de Lafayette a general. "As for myself, though I was the senior colonel, and (as I understood him to say) his superior in personal rank, I passed for nobody, because I was only a chevalier." This sally was laughed at, at the time, though there is something very unsettled in the use of those arbitrary personal distinctions on which the French formerly laid so much stress. I shall not attempt to explain them. I contented myself by whispering to M. de Lameth, that we certainly knew very little of such matters in America, but I questioned if we were ever so ignorant as to suppose there was only one Marquis in France. On the contrary, we are little too apt to fancy every Frenchman a Marquis.

There was formerly a regular parish church attached to the chateau, which is still standing. It is very small, and is within a short distance of the gateway. The congregation was composed solely of the inhabitants of the chateau, and the people of the farm. The church contains epitaphs and inscriptions in memory of three of the D'Aubussons whose hearts were buried here, viz. Leon, Comte de Lafeuillade, a lieutenant-general; Gabriel, Marquis de Montargis; and Paul D'Aubussons, a Knight of Malta; all of whom were killed young, in battle.

The General has about three hundred and fifty acres in cultivation, and more than two in wood, pasture, and meadow. The place is in very excellent condition, and seems to be well attended to. I have galloped all over it, on a little filly belonging to one of the young gentlemen, and have found beauty and utility as nicely blended, as is often to be met with, even in England, the true country of fermes ornées, though the name is imported.

The third day of our visit, we all drove three or four leagues across the country, to see an old ruin of a royal castle called Vivier. This name implies a pond, and sure enough we found the remains of the buildings in the midst of two or three pools of water. This has been a considerable house, the ruins being still quite extensive and rather pretty. It was originally the property of a great noble, but the kings of France were in possession of it, as early as the year 1300. Charles V. had a great affection for Vivier, and very materially increased its establishment. His son, Charles VI. who was at times deranged, was often confined here, and it was after his reign, and by means of the long wars that ravaged France, that the place came to be finally abandoned as a royal abode. Indeed, it is not easy to see why a king should ever have chosen this spot at all for his residence, unless it might be for the purpose of hunting, for even now it is in a retired, tame, and far from pleasant part of the country.

There are the ruins of a fine chapel and of two towers of considerable interest, beside extensive fragments of more vulgar buildings. One of these towers, being very high and very slender, is a striking object; but, from its form and position, it was one of those narrow wells that were attached to larger towers, and which contained nothing but the stairs. They are commonly to be seen in the ruins of edifices built in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, in France; and what is worthy of remark, in several instances, notwithstanding their slender forms, I have met with them standing, although their principals have nearly disappeared. I can only account for it, by supposing that their use and delicacy of form have required more than ordinary care in the construction.

The ruins of Vivier belong to M. Parquin, a distinguished lawyer of Paris. This gentleman has a small country-house near by, and General Lafayette took us all to see him. We found him at home, and met, quite as a matter of course, with a polite reception. M. Parquin gave us much curious information about the ruin, and took us to see some of the subterraneous passages that he has caused to be opened.

It is thought that some of these artificial caverns were prisons, and that others were intended merely as places for depositing stores. The one we entered was of beautiful masonry, vaulted with the nicest art, and seemed to communicate with the ruins although the outlet was in the open field, and some distance from the walls. It might have been intended for the double purpose of a store-house and an outlet; for it is rare to meet with a palace, or a castle, that has out, more or less, of these private means of entrance and retreat. The Tuileries is said to abound with them, and I have been shown the line of an under-ground passage, between that palace and one of the public hotels, which must be fully a quarter of a mile in length.

Dulaure gives an extract from a report of the state of the Chateau of Vivier, made about the year 1700, with a view to know whether its conditions were such as to entitle the place to preserve certain of its privileges. In this document, the castle is described as standing in the centre of a marsh, surrounded by forest, and as so remote from all civilization, as to be nearly forgotten. This, it will be remembered, is the account of a royal abode, that stands within thirty miles of Paris.

In the very heart of the French capital, are the remains of an extensive palace of one of the Roman Emperors, and yet it may be questioned if one in a thousand, of those who live within a mile of the spot, have the least idea of the origin of the buildings. I have inquired about it, in its immediate neighbourhood, and it was with considerable difficulty I could discover any one who even knew that there was such a ruin at all, in the street. The great number of similar objects, and the habit of seeing them daily, has some such effect on one, as the movement of a crowd in a public thoroughfare, where images pass so incessantly before the eye, as to leave no impression of their peculiarities. Were a solitary bison to scamper through the Rue St. Honoré, the worthy Parisians would transmit an account of his exploits to their children's children, while the wayfarer on the prairies takes little heed of the flight of a herd.

As we went to Lagrange, we stopped at a tavern, opposite to which was the iron gate of a small chateau. I asked the girl who was preparing our goûter, to whom the house belonged. "I am sorry I cannot tell you, sir," she answered; and then seeing suspicion in my face, she promptly added—"for, do you see, sir, I have only been here six weeks." Figure to yourself an American girl, set down opposite an iron gate, in the country, and how long do you imagine she would be ignorant of the owner's name? If the blood of those pious inquisitors, the puritans, were in her veins, she would know more, not only of the gate, but of its owner, his wife, his children, his means, his hopes, wishes, intentions and thoughts, than he ever knew himself, or would be likely to know. But if this prominent love of meddling must of necessity in its very nature lead to what is worse than contented ignorance, gossiping error, and a wrong estimate of our fellow-creatures, it has, at least, the advantage of keeping a people from falling asleep over their everyday facts. There is no question that the vulgar and low-bred propensity of conjecturing, meddling, combining, with their unavoidable companion, inventing, exist to a vice, among a portion of our people; but, on the other hand, it is extremely inconvenient when one is travelling, and wishes to know the points of the compass, as has happened to myself, if he should ask a full-grown woman whereabouts the sun rises in that neighbourhood, he is repulsed with the answer, that—"Monsieur ought to know that better than a poor garden-woman like me!"

We returned to Paris, after a pleasant visit of three days at Lagrange, during which we had delightful weather, and altogether a most agreeable time. The habits of the family are very regular and simple, but the intercourse has the freedom and independence of a country-house. We were all in the circular drawing-room a little before ten, breakfast being served between ten and eleven. The table was French, the morning repast consisting of light dishes of meat, compotes, fruits, and sometimes soupe au lait, one of the simplest and best things for such a meal than can be imagined. As a compliment to us Americans, we had fish fried and broiled, but I rather think this was an innovation. Wine, to drink with water, as a matter of course, was on the table. The whole ended with a cup of café au lait. The morning then passed as each one saw fit. The young men went shooting, the ladies drove out, or read, or had a little music, while the general and myself were either walking about the farm, or were conversing in the library. We dined at six, as at Paris, and tea was made in the drawing-room about nine.

I was glad to hear from General Lafayette, that the reports of Americans making demands on his purse, like so many other silly rumours that are circulated, merely because some one has fancied such a thing might be so, are untrue. On the contrary, he assures me that applications of this nature are very seldom made, and most of those that have been made have proved to come from Englishmen, who have thought they might swindle him in this form. I have had at least a dozen such applications myself, but I take it nothing is easier, in general, than to distinguish between an American and a native of Great Britain. It was agreed between us, that in future all applications of this nature should be sent to me for investigation.[30]

[Footnote 30: Under this arrangement, two or three years later, an applicant was sent for examination, under very peculiar circumstances. The man represented himself to be a shopkeeper of Baltimore, who had come to England with his wife and child, to purchase goods. He had been robbed of all he had, according to his account of the matter, about a thousand pounds in sovereigns, and was reduced to want, in a strange country. After trying all other means in vain, he bethought him of coming to Paris, to apply to General Lafayette for succour. He had just money enough to do this, having left his wife in Liverpool. He appeared with an English passport, looked like an Englishman, and had even caught some of the low English idioms, such as, "I am agreeable," for "It is agreeable to me," or, "I agree to do so," etc. etc. The writer was exceedingly puzzled to decide as to this man's nationality. At length, in describing his journey to Paris, he said, "they took my passport from me, when we got to the lines." This settled the matter, as no one but an American would call a frontier the lines. He proved, in the end, to be an American, and a great rogue.]

James Fenimore Cooper

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