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Chapter 11

LETTER XI.

Leave Liége.—Banks of the Mense.—Spa.—Beautiful Promenades.—Robinson Crusoe.—The Duke of Saxe-Cobourg.—Former magnificence of Spa.—Excursions in the vicinity.—Departure from Spa.—Aix-la-Chapelle.—The Cathedral.—The Postmaster's Compliments.—Berghem.—German Enthusiasm.—Arrival at Cologne.


Dear ——,

On the fourth day of our quarantine, we left Liége, if not with clean bills of health, with passport bearing proof about it that would enable us to enter Prussia the next morning. The King and his brother having laid all the horses in requisition, we did not get away before two; but once on the road, our postilions drove like men who had reaped a double harvest.

The route lay for some distance along the banks of the Meuse, and the whole region was one of exquisite landscape beauties. An intensely dark verdure—a road that meandered through the valley, occasionally shifting from bank to bank—hill-sides covered with fruit-trees and fragrant with flowers—country-houses—hamlets—cottages—with every appearance of abundance and comfort, and back-grounds of swelling land, that promised equal beauty and equal affluence, were the principal features of the scene. The day was as fine as possible, and, everything bearing a leaf having just been refreshed with a recent shower, we glided through this fairy region with something like enthusiasm with which we had formerly journeyed in Switzerland and Italy.

The Meuse, however, was soon abandoned for a tributary, and, after proceeding a few leagues, the character of the country gradually changed, although it still continued peculiar and beautiful. The intensity of the verdure disappeared in a pale, but still a decided green—the forest thickened—the habitations no longer crowded the way-side, and we appeared to be entering a district, that was altogether less populous and affluent than the one we had left, but which was always neat, picturesque, and having an air of comfort. We were gradually, but almost imperceptibly ascending.

This lasted for four hours, when, reaching a country-house, the road turned suddenly at a right angle, and ran for near a mile through an avenue of trees, bounded by open meadows. At the termination of this avenue we dashed into the streets of a small, well-built, neat, and compact village, that contained about one hundred and fifty dwellings, besides three or four edifices of rather more than usual pretensions. This was the celebrated Spa, a watering-place whose reputation was once co-extensive with civilization.

We drove to an inn, where we dined, but finding it crowded and uncomfortable. I went out and hired a furnished house by the day, putting our own servants, with an assistant, in possession of the kitchen. Next morning, perceiving that I had been too hasty, and that our lodgings were too confined, I discharged them and took a better. We got a dining-room, two drawing-rooms, several bed-rooms, with offices, etc., all neat and well-furnished, for a Napoleon a day. I mention these things as they serve to show you the facilities a traveller enjoys in this part of the world. Nearly every house in Spa is to be had in this manner, fitted for the reception of guests, the proprietor occupying a small building adjoining, and usually keeping a shop, where wine and groceries may be had. Servants can be engaged at any moment, and one is thus enabled to set up his own ménage at an hour's notice. This mode is more economical for a large family, than living at an hotel, vastly more comfortable, and more respectable. Dinners can be had from the taverns, if desired. François being something of a cook, with the aid of the Spa assistant, we lived entirely within ourselves. You will remember that in hiring the house by the day, I reserved the right to quit it at any moment.

Spa, like most other places that possess chalybeate waters, stands in the centre of a country that can boast but little of its fertility. Still, time and cultivation have left it the character of pale verdure of which I have just spoken, and which serves for a time to please by its novelty. The hue looked neither withered nor sickly, but it was rather that of young grasses. It was a ghostly green. The eye wanders over a considerable extent of naked fields, when one is on the steep wooded hills, under whose very brows the village is built, and I scarcely can recall a spot where a stronger impression of interminable vastness is left, than I felt while gazing at the illimitable swells of land that stretch away towards France. The country is said to be in the mountains of the Ardennes, and once there was the forest through which the "Boar of Ardennes" was wont to roam; but of forest there is now none; and if there be a mountain, Spa must stand on its boundless summit. High and broken hills do certainly appear, but, as a whole, it is merely an upland region.

The glory of Spa has departed! Time was when the idle, the gay and the dissolute crowded to this retired village to intrigue and play, under the pretence of drinking the waters; when its halls were thronged with princes and nobles, and even monarchs frequented its fêtes and partook of its festivities. The industrious inhabitants even now spare no pains to render the abode pleasant, but the capricious taste of the age lures the traveller to other springs, where still pleasanter haunts invite their presence. Germany abounds with watering-places, which are usually rendered agreeable by a judicious disposition of walks, and by other similar temptations. In nothing are the money-grasping and shiftless habits of America rendered more apparent, than in the inferiority of her places of public resort. In all these particulars nature has done a good deal for some of them, but nowhere has man done anything worth naming.

A trifling expenditure has rendered the rude hill which, covered chiefly with evergreens, overlooks Spa, a succession of beautiful promenades. Serpentine walks are led through its thickets, agreeable surprises are prepared for the stranger, and all the better points of view are ornamented by seats and summer-houses. One of these places was covered by a permanent protection against the weather that had a name which amused us, though it was appropriate enough, so far as the shape went. It was called a "mushroom," it being, in fact, a sort of wooden umbrella, not unlike those which the French market-women spread over their heads in the streets of Paris, and which, more sentimental and imaginative, they term a "Robinson" in honour of Robinson Crusoe.[22] This mushroom was the scene of a remarkable occurrence, that it will scarcely do to relate, but which, taking all together, furnishes a ludicrous sample of national manners, to say nothing of miracles.

The waters and the air together proved to be so much a tonic, that we determined to pass a week at Spa, A——, who was so weak on leaving Paris, as scarcely to be able to enter the carriage, gaining strength in a way to delight us all. The cholera and the quarantine together induce a good many people to come this way, and though few remain as long as ourselves, the constant arrivals serve to keep attention alive. Among others, the Duke of Saxe-Cobourg passed a night here, on his way home. He appeared in the public room, for a few minutes; but so few were assembled, that he retired, it was said, disappointed. There is still some playing in public, and occasionally the inhabitants of Verviers, an affluent manufacturing town, near the Prussian frontier, come over in sufficient numbers to make a tolerably brilliant evening. These meetings take place in the Redoute, a building of moderate dimensions, erected in the heart of the place according to a very general German custom; Wauxhall, the ancient scene of revelry, standing aloof in the fields, deserted and desolate, as does a rival edifice of more recent existence. The dimensions and style of these structures give one an idea of the former gaiety and magnificence of Spa, though the only use that either is now put to, is to furnish a room for a protestant clergyman to preach in, Sundays.

As health, after all, is the greatest boon of life, we loitered at Spa a fortnight, endeavouring to while away the time in the best way we could. Short as was our stay, and transient as were the visits, we remained long enough to see that it was an epitome of life. Some intrigued, some played, and some passed the time at prayer. I witnessed trouble in one ménage, saw a parson drunk, and heard much pious discourse from a captain in the navy!

We got little Ardennes horses, which were constantly parading the streets, led by countrymen in blouses, to tempt us to mount, and took short excursions in the vicinity. Sometimes we made what is called the tour of the springs; of which there are several, each differing from the others in its medicinal properties, and only one of which is in the village itself, the rest being a mile or more distant. At other times, we lounged in the shops, admiring and purchasing the beautiful boxes and ornaments that are known as Spa work, and which are merely the wood of the hills, coloured by being deposited for a time in the spring, and then painted and varnished highly. Similar work is made in other places, but nowhere else as beautifully as here.

At length ennui got the better of the good air and the invigorating water, and I sent for my passport and the horses. François, by this time, was tired of cooking, and he carried the orders for both right joyfully, while my bourgeois received his Napoleons with many handsome expressions of regret, that I dare say were truer than common. In the mean time we hurried about with our cards of P.P.C.; bidding adieu to some, without the slightest expectation of ever meeting them again, and promising others to renew the acquaintance on the Rhine, or among the Alps, as events might decide. At half-past eleven all was ready, and shaking hands with two countrymen who came to see us off, we took our places, and dashed away from our ménage of a fortnight's duration, as unceremoniously as we had stepped into it.

The dog-star raged with all its fury, as we drove through the close and pent-up valleys that lie between Spa and Verviers. At the latter place we began to ascend, until finally we reached a broad and naked height, that overlooked a wide reach of country towards the east. This was the region that lies around the ancient capital of Charlemagne, and is now a part of what M. de Pradt has described "as a façade thrown before Europe," or the modern and disjointed kingdom of Prussia. We reached the frontier on the height of land, where, everything proving to be en règle, we met with no obstruction or delay.

While crossing the swell of land just mentioned, the wind changed with a suddenness that we are apt to think American, but which occurs more frequently in this hemisphere, or rather in this part of it, than in our own. The peculiarity of the American climate is its exaggeration rather than its fickleness; its passages from extreme heat to extreme cold, more than the frequency of its lesser transitions. One never thinks of an umbrella in America, with a cloudless sky; whereas, during the spring months in particular, there is no security against rain an hour at a time, near the western coast of Europe, more especially north of the Bay of Biscay. On the present occasion, we passed in a few minutes from the oven to the ice-house, and were travelling with cloaks about us, and closed windows, long before we reached Aix-la-Chapelle, at which ancient town we arrived about six. Unlike Spa, where we had the choice among a hundred furnished houses, Aix was so crowded that we got narrow lodgings, with great difficulty, in a second-rate hotel.

As a matter of course, although it was going over old ground with most of us, we could do no less than look at the sights. The environs of Aix, though exceedingly pretty, and well ornamented by country-houses, are less beautiful than those of Liege. Although Charlemagne has been buried near a thousand years, and there is no longer an Emperor of Germany, or a King of the Romans, Aix-la-Chapelle is still a town of more than 30,000 inhabitants. It is a crowded and not a particularly neat place, though material improvements are making, and we have been more pleased with it this year than we were last. The town-house is a very ancient structure, one of its towers being supposed to have been built by the Romans, and it is celebrated as having been the place of meeting of two European congresses; that of 1748, and that of our own times. It has a gallery of portraits of the different ambassadors, a big-wigged if a not big-witted set.

The cathedral, though imperfect, is a noble and a curious monument: the choir is modern, that is to say, of Gothic workmanship, and only five hundred years old, while the main body is an antique rotunda, that dates more than twice as far back, or as remotely as the reign of Charlemagne himself. There is a circular gallery in it, around which the thrones of the Emperor and Electors were formerly placed, at the ceremonies of coronations. Each of these thrones was flanked by small antique columns, brought from Rome, but which during the reign of Napoleon, in the spirit of monopoly and desecration[23] that marked the era, had been transferred to Paris, where some of them are still seen standing in the gallery of the Tuileries. A chair that was found in Charlemagne's tomb stands in this gallery, and was long used as a throne for the Emperors.

The cathedral is said to be rich in relics, and, among other things, it has some of the manna from the desert, and a bit of Aaron's rod! It has a window or two, in a retired chapel, which have a few panes of exquisitely painted glass that are much more precious than either.

At noon I sent my passport to the post-house for horses, and, in return, I had a visit from the postmaster in compliment to the republic of letters. We said a few flattering things to each other, much to the amusement of A——, when we took our departure.

The country, after quitting the valley of Aix,[24] became flat and monotonous, and it was in the midst of a vast level district that we found the town of Juliers, the capital of the ancient duchy, buried behind grassy ramparts, that were scarcely visible until we were actually passing them. It is a tame and insignificant place, at present. At Berghem, a post or two further, I had another visit from the postmaster and his clerk, who made no scruple in asking me if I was the man who wrote books! We talk a great deal of our national intelligence in America, and certainly with truth, when we compare ourselves with these people in many important particulars; but blocks are not colder, or can have less real reverence for letters, arts, or indeed cultivation of any kind, than the great bulk of the American people. There are a few among us who pretend to work themselves up into enthusiasm as respects the first, more especially if they can get a foreign name to idolize; but it is apparent, at a glance, that it is not enthusiasm of the pure water. For this, Germany is the land of sensations, whether music, poetry, arms, or the more material arts be their object. As for myself, I can boast of little in this way, beyond the homage of my two postmasters, which perhaps was more than properly fell to my share; but I shall never forget the feeling displayed by a young German, at Dresden, whom chance threw in my way. We had lodgings in a house directly opposite the one inhabited by Tieck, the celebrated novelist and dramatist. Having no proper means of introduction to this gentleman, and unwilling to obtrude myself anywhere, I never made his acquaintance, but it was impossible not to know, in so small a town, where so great a celebrity lived. Next door to us was a Swiss confectioner, with whom I occasionally took an ice. One day a young man entered for a similar purpose, and left the room with myself. At the door he inquired if I could tell him in which of the neighbouring hotels M. Tieck resided, I showed him the house and paused a moment to watch his manner, which was entirely free from pretension, but which preserved an indescribable expression of reverence. "Was it possible to get a glimpse of the person of M. Tieck?" "I feared not; some one had told me that he was gone to a watering-place." "Could I tell him which was the window of his room?" This I was able to do, as he had been pointed out to me at it a few days before. I left him gazing at the window, and it was near an hour before this quiet exhibition of heartfelt homage ceased by the departure of the young man. In my own case, I half suspect that my two postmasters expected to see a man of less European countenance than the one I happen to travel with.

It was near sunset when we reached the margin of the upper terrace, where we began to descend to the level of the borders of the Rhine. Here we had a view of the towers of Cologne, and of the broad plain that environs its walls. It was getting to be dark as we drove through the winding entrance, among bastions and half-moons, and across bridges, up to the gates of the place, which we reached just in season to be admitted without the extra formalities.




James Fenimore Cooper

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