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Chapter 10

LETTER X.

School System in America.—American Maps.—Leave Brussels.—Louvain.—Quarantine.—Liége.—The Soleil d'Or.—King Leopold and Brother.—Royal Intermarriages.—Environs of Liége.—The Cathedral and the Church of St. Jacques.—Ceremonies of Catholic Worship.—Churches of Europe.—Taverns of America.—Prayer in the Fields.—Scott's error as regards the Language spoken in Liége.—Women of Liége.—Illumination in honour of the King.


Dear ——,

In the morning the Director-General of Public Instruction called to obtain some information on the subject of the common school system in America. I was a little surprised at this application, the Finance controversy having quite thrown me into the shade at the Tuileries, and this court being just now so dependent on that of France. You will smile at this opinion, but even facts are subject to such circumstances, and great men submit to very little influences occasionally.[20] The old ground of explaining the power of the States had to be gone over, and the affair was disposed of by agreeing that written querries should be sent to Paris. I had a similar application from a French functionary not long since. A digest of the facts, as they are connected with the State of New York, was accordingly prepared, and handed to the Minister of Public Instruction. This gentleman rose in debate with the document in his hand, and got on well enough until he came to the number of children in the schools (near half a million), which appeared to him to be so much out of proportion to whole numbers (a little exceeding two millions) that, without hesitation, he reduced them on his own responsibility one half! As a proof that no more was meant than to keep within reasonable bounds, he immediately added, "or all there are." Now this is a fair specimen of the manner in which America is judged, her system explained, and her facts curtailed. In Europe everything must be reduced to a European standard, to be even received. Had we been Calmucks or Kurds, any marvel might go down; but being deemed merely deteriorated Europeans, tanned to ebony, our facts are kept closely within the current notions. Such a disproportion between adults and minors being unknown in this hemisphere, it was at once set down as an American exaggeration, to pretend to have them in the other. What were our official returns to a European prejudice!

Not long since an artist of reputation came to me, in Paris, with a view to get a few hints for a map of the Hudson, that had been ordered as an illustration of one of our books. He was shown all the maps in my possession, some of which were recent and sufficiently minute. I observed some distrust in his manner, and in the end, he suggested that an old French map of the Canadas, that he had in his pocket, might possibly be more accurate than those which had just been received from America. The map was produced, and, as might have been expected, was utterly worthless; but an intimation to that effect was not well received, as the artist had not been accustomed to consider the Americans as map-makers. At length I was compelled to show him Poughkeepsie laid down on his map directly opposite to Albany, and to assure him gravely that I had myself travelled many a time in a north and south direction, from sunrise to sunset, in order to go from one of these places to the other, and that they were eighty miles asunder!

We left Brussels at noon, and reached Louvain at three. Though not taken so completely by surprise as we were last year, the town-house still gave us great pleasure. They were at work repairing it, and the fresh stones gave it a mottled look, but, on the whole, it is one of the most extraordinary edifices I know. It is a sort of condensation of quaintness, that is quite without a rival even in this land of laboured and curious architecture. The little pavilion of the Prince of Orange, that lies on the road, was still deserted and respected. I dare say his fishing-rods and fowling-pieces are intact, while his inheritance is shorn of half its glory.

There was a quarantine before entering the Prussian states on account of the cholera, and having understood that we should gain in time after quitting Brussels, beyond which the malady has not yet extended, we went no farther than Thirlemont, where we passed the night. The place is insignificant, and the great square was chiefly occupied by "awkward squads" of the new levies, who were drilling as fast as they could, in readiness for the Dutch. The Belgians have reached Protocol No. 67, and they begin to think it is most time now to have something more substantial. They will find King William of the true "hard-kopping" breed.

The next morning we posted down to Liége in time to take a late breakfast. The road from Brussels to this place has run through a fertile and well-cultivated country, but the scene changed like magic, as soon as we got a glimpse of the valley of the Meuse. Liége has beautiful environs, and the town is now the seat of industry. Coal-pits abound in the immediate vicinity, and iron is wrought in a hundred places. As we drove through the antique and striking court of the venerable episcopal palace, and emerged on the great square, we found the place alive with people, and our arrival at the Soleil d'Or produced a sensation that seemed inexplicable. Landlord, laquais, populace and all, ran to greet us, and people were hurrying to the spot in every direction. There was nothing to be done but to wait the result patiently, and I soon saw by the cold looks of the servants, and the shrug of François, who had jumped down to order rooms, that there was mutual disappointment. Everybody turned their backs upon us, and there we sat in the shadow of neglect, after having momentarily shone in the sunshine of universal observation. It had been merely ascertained that we were not the King of the Belgians and his brother the Grand Duke of Saxe-Cobourg-Gotha. The Soleil d'Or, which like other suns, is most apt to shine on the great, veiled its face from us, and we were compelled to quit the great square, and to seek more humble lodgings. These were soon obtained at the Black Eagle, a clean and good house.

I went to the police immediately with my passport, and found that one of our five days of quarantine had been comfortably gotten rid of at Thirlemont.

These quarantines are foolish things, and quite easily evaded. You have been told the manner in which, last year, instead of spending five times twenty-four hours in a hut, shut up with a Russian Princess, I drove into the court of our own hotel in Paris on the evening of the fifth day, and M——, you will remember, merely turned the flanks of a sentinel or two, by walking a mile in the fields. We were advised, on this occasion, to have our passport viséd at Brussels, the moment we arrived, and the intermediate time would have counted on the frontier, but being in no haste, we preferred proceeding regularly.

The next day the town filled rapidly, and about noon the cannon announced the entrance of the King. A worse salute was never fired; but his Majesty is greeted with smiling faces, which is, probably more to his liking. He is certainly a prudent and respectable man, if not a great one; and just now very popular. I met him and his brother in the streets, the day after their arrival: they were in an open carriage and pair, with two boys, the sons of the Duke, on the front seat. Leopold has a grave and thoughtful face, and is far from being as well-looking as his brother, who is a large comely man; not unlike the Duke Bernard of Saxe-Weimar, so well known in America. All the princes of the Saxon duchies that I have seen, are large, well-formed men, while those of Saxe Royal, as the kingdom is called, are the reverse. A diplomatic man, here, once remarked to me, that this rule held good as to most of the protestant and catholic princes, throughout Europe, the close intermarriages of the latter in his opinion, affecting the stock. The imagination has had something to do with this notion, for there are certainly many exceptions on both sides, if, indeed, it be a rule at all. I think, there is little doubt that the habits of the mind, mode of living, and climate, contribute essentially to vary the physiognomy; but I cannot subscribe fully to the influence of these intermarriages, which, by the way, are nearly, if not quite, as circumscribed among the Protestants as among the Catholics. The portion of Europe that is governed by princes, is divided among forty-four different states,[21] of whom twenty-eight are Protestant, one a Greek, one a Mahomedan, and the rest are Catholics. These forty-four sovereigns claim to be descended from nineteen different roots: thus, the direct male descendants of Hugh Capet occupy the thrones of France, Spain, Naples, Lucca, and Portugal; the latter being derived from an illegitimate son of a Duke of Burgundy, before the accession of the Bourbon branch. The houses of Austria, Baden, Tuscany, and Modena, are derived from a Duke of Alsace, who flourished in the seventh century. I was mistaken in a former letter, in saying that the family of Lorraine is different from that of Habsbourg, for it is said to be derived in the male line equally from this Prince of Alsace. The Hohenzollerns are on the throne of Prussia, and possess the two little principalities of that name; while the Emperor of Russia is merely a Prince of Holstein. These families have been intermarrying for a thousand years, and it is not possible that they should have entirely escaped some personal peculiarities; still, as a whole, they are quite as fine physical specimens of humanity, as the average of their subjects. The Princes of Russia are singularly fine men; the house of Denmark well-looking; the Saxons, the royal branch excepted, more than usually so; the house of Wurtemburg very like the English family; the Bourbons, as a family, are a fine race; the Austrians peculiar, and less comely, though the women are often quite handsome; Don Miguel is a little beauty, very mild and gentleman-like in his appearance, though Lady ——, who sat next him at dinner, on a certain occasion, assured me she saw nothing but blood and rapine in his countenance! Her father, Lord ——, one of the ablest men of his time, and one familiar with high political events, gravely assured me he gave implicit credence to the tales we have heard of the outrages committed by this prince, and which, if true, render him a fit subject for the gallows. But I have seen so much of the exaggeration of factions, that incredulity, perhaps, has got to be a fault with me. I longed to tell Lord —— what I had heard, in England, under his very nose, of himself! Among other absurdities, I had, shortly before this very conversation, heard a respectable Englishman affirm that such was the morgue aristocratique of this nobleman, that he compelled his wife and daughters to walk backwards, in quitting his presence, as is done at court! This was said of a man, whom I found to be of more simple, off-hand, unpretending, gentleman-like deportment, whose demeanour had more of the nice tact which neither offends by superciliousness, nor wounds by condescension, than that of any other man of rank in England. To return to our subject;—the Austrian face is, certainly, getting to be prevalent among the southern catholic families, for all of them are closely allied to the house of Habsbourg by blood, but I do not see any more in the physique of the Saxon Dukes than the good old Saxon stamina, nor aught in the peculiar appearance of the royal branch but an accident.

Three or four days of leisure have enabled us to look very thoroughly at the exterior of Liége, which is certainly an interesting town, with lovely environs. There are some very good old houses along the banks of the river, and a few of the churches are noble edifices. The cathedral and the church of St. Jaques, in particular, are venerable and interesting structures; and I stood beneath their lofty arches, listening to the chants of the choir, and inhaling the odours of the incense, with a satisfaction that never tires. I sometimes wish I had been educated a Catholic, in order to unite the poetry of religion with its higher principles. Are they necessarily inseparable? Is man really so much of a philosopher, that he can conceive of truth in its abstract purity, and divest life and the affections of all the aids of the imagination? If they who strip the worship of God of its factious grace, earnestly presented themselves in the garb of moral humility, rendering their familiar professions conformable to their general tenets, and stood before us as destitute of self-esteem as they are of ornament, one might not so much feel the nakedness of their rites; but, as a rule, the less graceful the forms and the more intense the spirituality of the minister of the altar become, the higher is his tone of denunciation and the more palpable his self-righteousness. In point of fact, when the proper spirit prevails, forms, of themselves, become of little account; and when men begin to deem them otherwise, it is proof rather of the want, than of the excess, of the humility and charity which are the inseparable companions of faith. I do not say that I would imitate all the unmeaning and irreverent practices of the Romish church; and least of all could one wish to see the devout and solemn manner of the Protestant ministering at the altar supplanted by the unintelligible mumblings of the Latin breviaries: but why have we denounced the holy symbol of the cross, the ornaments of the temple, the graceful attire, and the aid of music? It is impossible, I think, for the American, who has visited Europe, not to feel the want of edifices reared in honour of God, which everywhere exists in his own country. I do not mean churches, in which the comfort and convenience of the pew-holders have been mainly consulted, for these pious speculations abound; but temples to mark a sense of the superiority of the Deity, and which have been reared in his honour. It may be easy enough to account for the absence of such buildings, in a country so peopled and still so young, but this does not make the deficiency the less obvious.

In this hemisphere, scarcely a village is approached, that the high roof and towers of a church do not form its nucleus, the temple appearing to spread its protection over the humbler abodes of men. The domes, the pointed and lofty arches, and the Gothic tracery of cathedrals, soar above the walls of cities, and everywhere man is congregated, he appears to seek shelter under the wide-spreading wings of the church. It is no argument to say that true religion may exist without these edifices, for infidelity may also exist without them, and if it be right or useful to honour God at all, in this manner, it is a right and a usefulness to which we have not yet attained. The loftiest roofs of an American town are, invariably, its taverns; and, let metaphysics get over the matter as it may, I shall contend that such a thing is, at least, unseemly to the eye. With us it is not Gog and Magog, but grog or no grog; we are either a tame plane of roofs, or a pyramid in honour of brandy and mint-juleps. When it comes to the worship of God, each man appears to wish a nut-shell to contain himself and his own shades of opinion; but when there is question of eating and drinking, the tent of Pari Banou would not be large enough to hold us. I prefer large churches and small taverns.

There are one or two usages, especially, of the Romish church, that are not only beautiful, but which must be useful and salutary. One is the practice of leaving the church open at all hours, for the purposes of prayer. I have seldom entered one of these vaulted, vast, and appropriate Houses of God, without finding fewer or more devotees kneeling at the different altars. Another usage is that of periodical prayer, in the fields, or wherever the peasants may happen to be employed, as in the angelus, &c. I remember, with pleasure, the effect produced by the bell of the village church, as it sent its warning voice, on such occasions, across the plains, and over the hills, while we were dwellers in French or Italian hamlets. Of all these touching embellishments of life, America, and I had almost said, Protestantism, is naked; and in most cases, I think it will be found, on inquiry, naked without sufficient reason.

The population of Liége is still chiefly Catholic, I believe, although the reign of the ecclesiastics has ceased. They speak an impure French, which is the language of the whole region along this frontier. Scott, whose vivid pictures carried with them an impress of truth that misled his readers, being by no means a man of either general or accurate attainment, out of the immediate circle of his peculiar knowledge, which was Scottish traditions, has represented the people of Liége, in Quentin Durward, as speaking Flemish; an error of which they make loud complaints, it being a point on which they are a little sensitive. A poet may take great licences, and it is hypercriticism to lay stress on these minor points when truth is not the aim; but this is a blunder that might, as well as not, have been spared, and probably would have been, had the author given himself the trouble to inquire into the fact. But for the complaints of the Liégeois, the error would not have been very generally known, however; certainly, not by me, had I not visited the place.

The women of Liége appear to labour even more than usual for this part of Europe. They are employed in field-labour, everywhere; but in the towns, more attention is paid to the great distinctions between the employments of the sexes. Here, however, I saw them toiling in the coal-yards, and performing the offices of the common porters. They were much employed in unloading the market-boats, and yet they are far from being either coarse or ugly. The men are short, but sturdy. The average stature appears to be about five feet five and a half inches, but even this, I think, exceeds the average stature of the French.

The town has been illuminated two nights in succession, in honour of the King. Every one is occupied with his approaching marriage with the Princess Louisa of France, or as it is now the fashion to say, the Princess Louisa of Orleans—for since the revolution of 1830, there is no longer a King, nor any Children of France. It would have been better had more essential points been attended to and the old names retained. In England matters are differently managed, for there the government is always one of King, Lords, and Commons, though it is constantly fluctuating, and two of the parties are usually cyphers.




James Fenimore Cooper

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