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Chapter 23

LETTER XXIII.

Preparations for Departure.—My Consulate.—Leave
Paris.—Picardy.—Cressy.—Montreuil.—Gate of Calais.—Port of
Calais.—Magical Words.

To R. COOPER, ESQ., COOPERSTOWN.

We entered France in July, 1826, and having remained in and about the French capital until February, 1828, we thought it time to change the scene. Paris is effectually the centre of Europe, and a residence in it is the best training an American can have, previously to visiting the other parts of that quarter of the world. Its civilisation, usages, and facilities take the edge off our provincial admiration, remove prejudices, and prepare the mind to receive new impressions, with more discrimination and tact. I would advise all our travellers to make this their first stage, and then to visit the North of Europe, before crossing the Alps or the Pyrenees. Most people, however, hurry into the South, with a view to obtain the best as soon as possible; but it is with this, as in most of our enjoyments, a too eager indulgence defeats its own aim.

We had decided to visit London, where the season, or winter, would soon commence. The necessary arrangements were made, and we sent round our cards of p.p.c. and obtained passports. On the very day we were to quit Paris, an American friend wrote me a note to say that a young connexion of his was desirous of going to London, and begged a place for her in my carriage. It is, I believe, a peculiar and a respectable trait in the national character, that we so seldom hesitate about asking, or acceding to, favours of this sort. Whenever woman is concerned, our own sex yield, and usually without murmuring. At all events, it was so with W——, who cheerfully gave up his seat in the carriage to Miss ——, in order to take one in the coupé of the diligence. The notice was so short, and the hour so late, that there was no time to get a passport for him, and, as he was included in mine, I was compelled to run the risk of sending him to the frontiers without one. I was a consul at the time,—a titular one as to duties, but in reality as much of a consul as if I had ever visited my consulate.[34] The only official paper I possessed, in connexion with the office, the commission and exequatur excepted, was a letter from the Préfet of the Rhône, acknowledging the receipt of the latter. As this was strictly a French document, I gave it to W—— as proof of my identity, accompanied by a brief statement of the reasons why he was without a passport, begging the authorities at Need to let him pass as far as the frontier, where I should be in season to prove his character. This statement I signed as consul, instructing W—— to show it, if applied to for a passport; and if the gendarmes disavowed me, to show the letter, by way of proving who I was. The expedient was clumsy enough, but it was the best that offered.

[Footnote 34: There being so strong a propensity to cavil at American facts, lest this book might fall into European hands, it may be well to explain a little. The consulate of the writer was given to him solely to avoid the appearance of going over to the enemy, during his residence abroad. The situation conferred neither honour nor profit, there being no salary, and, in his case, not fees enough to meet the expense of the office opened by a deputy. The writer suspects he was much too true to the character and principles of his native country, to be voluntarily selected by its Government as the object of its honours or rewards, and it is certain he never solicited either. There are favours, it would seem, that are reserved, in America, for those who most serve the interests of her enemies! A day of retribution will come.]

This arrangement settled, we got into the carriage, and took our leave of Paris. Before quitting the town, however, I drove round to the Rue d'Anjou, to take my leave of General Lafayette. This illustrious man had been seriously ill for some weeks, and I had many doubts of my ever seeing him again. He did not conceive himself to be in any danger, however; but spoke of his speedy recovery as a matter of course, and made an engagement with me for the ensuing summer. I bade him adieu, with a melancholy apprehension that I should never see him again.

We drove through the gates of Paris, amid the dreariness of a winter's evening. You are to understand that everybody quits London and Paris just as night sets in. I cannot tell you whether this is caprice, or whether it is a usage that has arisen from a wish to have the day in town, and a desire to relieve the monotony of roads so often travelled, by sleep; but so it is. We did not fall into the fashion simply because it is a fashion, but the days are so short in February in these high latitudes, that we could not make our preparations earlier.

I have little agreeable to say concerning the first forty miles of the journey. It rained; and the roads were, as usual, slippery with mud, and full of holes. The old pavés are beginning to give way, however, and we actually got a bit of terre within six posts of Paris. This may be considered a triumph of modern civilisation; for, whatever may be said and sung in favour of Appian ways and Roman magnificence, a more cruel invention for travellers and carriage-wheels, than these pavés, was never invented. A real Paris winter's day is the most uncomfortable of all weather. If you walk, no device of leather will prevent the moisture from penetrating to your heart; if you ride, it is but an affair of mud and gras de Paris. We enjoyed all this until nine at night, by which time we had got enough of it; and in Beauvais, instead of giving the order à la poste, the postilion was told to go to an inn. A warm supper and good beds put us all in good-humour again.

In putting into the mouth of Falstaff the words, "Shall I not take mine ease in mine inn?" Shakspeare may have meant no more than the drowsy indolence of a glutton; but they recur to me with peculiar satisfaction whenever I get unbooted, and with a full stomach before the warm fire of an hotel, after a fatiguing and chilling day's work. If any man doubt whether Providence has not dealt justly by all of us in rendering our enjoyments dependent on comparative rather than on positive benefits, let him travel through a dreary day, and take his comfort at night in a house where everything is far below his usual habits, and learn to appreciate the truth. The sweetest sleep I have ever had has been caught on deck, in the middle watch, under a wet pee-jacket, and with a coil of rope for a pillow.

Our next day's work carried us as far as Abbeville, in Picardy. Here we had a capital supper of game, in a room that set us all shivering with good honest cold. The beds, as usual, were excellent. The country throughout all this part of France, is tame and monotonous, with wide reaches of grain-lands that are now brown and dreary, here and there a wood, and the usual villages of dirty stonehouses. We passed a few hamlets, however, that were more than commonly rustic and picturesque, and in which the dwellings seemed to be of mud, and were thatched. As they were mostly very irregular in form, the street winding through them quite prettily, they would have been good in their way, had there been any of the simple expedients of taste to relieve their poverty. But the French peasants of this province appear to think of little else but their wants. There was occasionally a venerable and generous old vine clinging about the door, however, to raise some faint impressions of happiness.

We passed through, or near, the field of Cressy. By the aid of the books, we fancied we could trace the positions of the two armies; but it was little more than very vague conjecture. There was a mead, a breadth of field well adapted to cavalry, and a wood. The river is a mere brook, and could have offered but little protection, or resistance, to the passage of any species of troops. I saw no village, and we may not have been within a mile of the real field, after all. Quite likely; no one knows where it is. It is very natural that the precise sites of great events should be lost, though our own history is so fresh and full, that to us it is apt to appear extraordinary. In a conversation with a gentleman of the Stanley family, lately, I asked him if Latham-House, so celebrated for its siege in the civil wars, was still in the possession of its ancient proprietors. I was told it no longer existed, and that, until quite recently, its positive site was a disputed point, and one which had only been settled by the discovery of a hole in a rock, in which shot had been cast during the siege, and which hole was known to have formerly been in a court. It is no wonder that doubts exist as to the identity of Homer, or the position of Troy.

We have anglicised the word Cressy, which the French term Crécy, or, to give it a true Picard orthography, Créci. Most of the names that have this termination are said to be derived from this province. Many of them have become English, and have undergone several changes in the spelling. Tracy, or Tracey; de Courcy, or de Courcey; Montmorency; and Lacy, or Lacey, were once "Traci," "Courci," "Montmorenci," and "Laci." [35] The French get over the disgrace of their ancient defeats very ingeniously, by asserting that the English armies of old were principally composed of Norman soldiers, and that the chivalrous nobility which performed such wonders were of purely Norman blood. The latter was probably more true than the former.

[Footnote 35: The celebrated Sir William Draper was once present when the subject turned on the descent of families, and the changes that names underwent. "Now my own is a proof of what I say," he continued, with the intention to put an end to a discourse that was getting to savour of family pride; "my family being directly derived from King Pepin." "How do you make that out, Sir William?" "By self-evident orthographical testimony, as you may see,—Pepin, Pipkin, Napkin, Diaper, Draper."]

As we drew nearer to the coast, the country became more varied. Montreuil and Samer are both fortified; and one of these places, standing on an abrupt, rocky eminence, is quite picturesque and quaint. But we did not stop to look at anything very minutely, pushing forward, as fast as three horses could draw us, for the end of our journey. A league or two from Boulogne we were met by a half-dozen mounted runners from the different inns, each inviting us to give our custom to his particular employer. These fellows reminded me of the wheat-runners on the hill at Albany; though they were as much more clamorous and earnest, as a noisy protestation-making Frenchman is more obtrusive, than a shrewd, quiet, calculating Yankee. We did not stop in Boulogne to try how true were the voluble representations of these gentry, but, changing horses at the post, went our way. The town seemed full of English; and we gazed about us, with some curiosity, at a place that has become so celebrated by the great demonstration of Napoleon. There is a high monument standing at no great distance from the town, to commemorate one of his military parades. The port is small and crowded, like most of the harbours on both sides of the Channel.

We had rain, and chills, and darkness, for the three or four posts that succeeded. The country grew more and more tame, until, after crossing an extensive plain of moist meadow-land, we passed through the gate of Calais. I know no place that will give you a more accurate notion of this celebrated port than Powles Hook. It is, however, necessary to enlarge the scale greatly, for Calais is a town of some size, and the hommock on which it stands, and the low land by which it is environed, are much more considerable in extent than the spot just named.

We drove to the inn that Sterne has immortalised, or one at least that bears the same name, and found English comfort united with French cookery and French taste. After all, I do not know why I may not say French comforts too; for in many respects they surpass their island neighbours even in this feature of domestic comfort. It is a comfort to have a napkin even when eating a muffin; to see one's self entire in a mirror, instead of edging the form into it, or out of it, sideways; to drink good coffee; to eat good côtelettes; and to be able to wear the same linen for a day, without having it soiled. The Bible says, "Comfort me with flagons, or apples," I really forget which,—and if either of these is to be taken as authority, a côtelette may surely be admitted into the carte de conforts.

We found Calais a clear town, and pressing a certain medium aspect, that was as much English as French. The position is strong, though I was not much struck with the strength of the works. England has no motive to wish to possess it, now that conquest on the Continent is neither expedient nor possible. The port is good for nothing, in a warlike sense, except to protect a privateer or two; though the use of steam will probably make it of more importance in any future war, than it has been for the last two centuries.

We found W—— safely arrived. At one of the frontier towns he had been asked for his passport, and in his fright he gave the letter of the Préfet of the Rhône, instead of the explanation I had so cleverly devised. This letter commenced with the words "Monsieur le Consul" in large letters, and occupying, according to French etiquette, nearly half of the first page. The gendarme, a vieux moustache, held his lantern up to read it, and seeing this ominous title, it would seem that Napoleon, and Marengo, and all the glories of the Consulate, arose in his imagination. He got no further than those three words, which he pronounced aloud; and then folding the letter, he returned it with a profound bow, asking no further questions. As the diligence drove on, W—— heard him say, "Apparemment vous avez un homme très-considérable là-dedans, Monsieur le Conducteur." So much for our fears, for passports, and for gendarmes!

We went to bed, with the intention of embarking for England in the morning.



THE END.



James Fenimore Cooper

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