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Chapter 28

LETTER XXVIII.

Miserable Inn.—A French Bed.—Free-Trade.—French Relics.—Cross Roads.—Arrival at La Grange.—Reception by General Lafayette.—The Nullification Strife.—Conversation with Lafayette.—His Opinion as to a Separation of the Union in America.—The Slave Question.—Stability of the Union.—Style of living at La Grange.—Pap.—French Manners, and the French Cuisine.—Departure from La Grange.—Return to Paris.


Dear ——,

I have little to say of the next two days' drive, except that ignorance, and the poetical conceptions of a postilion, led us into the scrape of passing a night in just the lowest inn we had entered in Europe. We pushed on after dark to reach this spot, and it was too late to proceed, as all of the party were excessively fatigued. To be frank with you, it was an auberge aux charretiers. Eating was nearly out of the question; and yet I had faith to the last, in a French bed. The experience of this night, however, enables me to say all France does not repose on excellent wool mattresses, for we were obliged to put up with a good deal of straw. And yet the people were assiduous, anxious to please, and civil. The beds, moreover, were tidy; our straw being clean straw.

The next night we reached a small town, where we did much better. Still one can see the great improvements that travellers are introducing into France, by comparing the taverns on the better roads with those on the more retired routes. At this place we slept well, and à la Française. If Sancho blessed the man who invented sleep after a nap on Spanish earth, what would he have thought of it after one enjoyed on a French bed!

The drums beat through the streets after breakfast, and the population crowded their doors, listening, with manifest interest, to the proclamation of the crier. The price of bread was reduced; an annunciation of great interest at all times, in a country where bread is literally the staff of life. The advocates of free-trade prices ought to be told that France would often be convulsed, literally from want, if this important interest were left to the sole management of dealers. A theory will not feed a starving multitude, and hunger plays the deuce with argument. In short, free-trade, as its warmest votaries now carry out their doctrines, approaches suspiciously near a state of nature: a condition which might do well enough, if trade were a principal, instead of a mere incident of life. With some men, however, it is a principal—an all in all—and this is the reason we frequently find those who are notoriously the advocates of exclusion and privileges in government, maintaining the doctrine, as warmly as those who carry their liberalism, in other matters, to extremes.

There was a small picture, in the manner of Watteau, in this inn, which the landlady told me had been bought at a sale of the effects of a neighbouring chateau. It is curious to discover these relics, in the shape of furniture, pictures, porcelain, &c., scattered all over France, though most of it has found its way to Paris. I offered to purchase the picture, but the good woman held it to be above price.

We left this place immediately after breakfast, and soon quitted the great route to strike across the country. The chemins vicinaux, or cross-roads of France, are pretty much in a state of nature; the public, I believe, as little liking to work them, as it does at home. Previously to the revolution, all this was done by means of the corvée; a right which empowered the seigneur to oblige his tenants to perform a certain amount of labour, without distinction, on the highways of his estate. Thus, whenever M. le Marquis felt disposed to visit the chateau, there was a general muster, to enable him and his friends to reach the house in safety, and to amuse themselves during their residence; after which the whole again reverted to the control of nature and accident. To be frank, one sometimes meets with by-roads in this old country, which are positively as bad as the very worst of our own, in the newest settlements. Last year I actually travelled post for twenty miles on one of these trackless ways.

We were more fortunate, however, on the present occasion; the road we took being what is called a route départementale, and little, if any, inferior to the one we had left. Our drive was through a slightly undulating country that was prettily wooded, and in very good agriculture. In all but the wheel-track, the traveller gains by quitting the great routes in France, for nothing can be more fatiguing to the eye than their straight undeviating monotony. They are worse than any of our own air-line turnpikes; for in America the constant recurrence of small isolated bits of wood greatly relieves the scenery.

We drove through this country some three or four leagues, until we at length came to an estate of better arrangements than common. On our left was a wood, and on our right a broad reach of meadow. Passing the wood, we saw a wide, park-like lawn, that was beautifully shaded by copses, and in which there were touches of landscape-gardening, in a taste altogether better than was usual in France. Passing this, another wood met us, and turning it, we entered a private road—you will remember the country has neither fence nor hedge, nor yet scarcely a wall—which wound round its margin, describing an irregular semicircle. Then it ran in a straight line for a short distance, among a grove of young evergreens, towards two dark picturesque towers covered with ivy, crossed a permanent bridge that spanned a ditch, and dashing through a gateway, in which the grooves of the portcullis are yet visible, we alighted in the court of La Grange!

It was just nine, and the family was about assembling in the drawing-room. The "le Général sera charmé de vous voir, monsieur," of the faithful Bastien, told us we should find his master at home; and on the great stairs, most of the ladies met us. In short, the patriarch was under his own roof, surrounded by that family which has so long been the admiration of thousands—or, precisely as one would most wish to find him.

It is not necessary to speak of our reception, where all our country are welcome. We were soon in the drawing-room, which I found covered with American newspapers, and in a few minutes I was made acquainted with all that was passing on the other side of the Atlantic. Mr. Rives had sailed for home; and as M. Perier was dead, General Lafayette had not explained in the Chamber the error into which that minister had permitted himself to fall, agreeably to a tardy authority to that effect received from Mr. Rives. The ministry was on the point of dissolution in France; and it was said the doctrinaires were to come in—and the nullification strife ran high at home. On the latter subject, Lafayette spoke with a reserve that was unusual on subjects connected with America, though he strongly deprecated the existence of the controversy.

There is great weakness in an American's betraying undue susceptibility on the score of every little unpleasant occurrence that arises at home. No one of the smallest intelligence can believe that we are to be exempt from human faults, and we all ought to know that they will frequently lead to violence and wrongs. Still there is so much jealousy here on this subject, the votaries of monarchies regard all our acts with so much malevolence, and have so strong a desire to exaggerate our faults, that it is not an easy matter at all times to suppress these feelings. I have often told our opponents that they pay us the highest possible compliment, in their constant effort to compare the results of the system with what is purely right in the abstract, instead of comparing its results with those of their own. But the predominance of the hostile interests are so great here, that reason and justice go for nothing in the conflict of opinions. If a member of congress is flogged, it is no answer to say that a deputy or a member of parliament has been murdered. They do not affirm, but they always argue as if they thought we ought to be better than they! If we have an angry discussion and are told of it, one would think it would be a very good answer, so far as comparative results are concerned, to tell them that half-a-dozen of their provinces are in open revolt; but to this they will not listen. They expect us never to quarrel! We must be without spot in all things, or we are worse than they. All this Lafayette sees and feels; and although it is impossible not to detect the unfairness and absurdity of such a mode of forming estimates of men, it is almost equally impossible, in the present situation of Europe, for one who understands the influence of American example, not to suffer these unpleasant occurrences to derange his philosophy.

Before breakfast the General took me into his library, and we had a long and a much franker conversation on the state of South Carolina. He said that a separation of the Union would break his heart. "I hope they will at least let me die," he added, "before they commit this suicide on our institutions." He particularly deprecated the practice of talking about such an event, which he thought would accustom men's minds to it. I had not the same apprehensions. To me it appeared that the habit of menacing dissolution, was the result of every one's knowing, and intimately feeling, the importance of hanging together, which induced the dissatisfied to resort to the threat, as the shortest means of attaining their object. It would be found in the end, that the very consciousness which pointed out this mode as the gravest attack that could be made on those whom the discontented wish to influence, would awaken enough to consequences to prevent any consummation in acts. This menace was a natural argument of the politically weak in America, just as the physically weak lay hold of knives and clubs, where the strong rely on their hands. It must be remembered that the latter, at need, can resort to weapons, too. I do not believe there could be found in all America any great number of respectable men who wish the Union dissolved; and until that shall be the case, I see no great grounds of apprehension. Moreover, I told him that so long as the northern states were tranquil I had no fears, for I felt persuaded that no great political change would occur in America that did not come from that section of the Union. As this is a novel opinion, he inquired for its reasons, and, in brief, this was the answer:—

There is but one interest that would be likely to unite all the south against the north, and this was the interest connected with slavery. Now, it was notorious that neither the federal government nor the individual states have anything to do with this as a national question, and it was not easy to see in what manner anything could be done that would be likely to push matters as far as disunion on such a point There might be, and there probably would be, discussion and denunciations—nay, there often had been; but a compromise having been virtually made, by which all new states at the north are to be free states, and all at the south slave-holding, I saw nothing else that was likely to be serious.[46] As respects all other interests, it would be difficult to unite the whole south. Taking the present discussion as an example: those that were disaffected, to use the strongest term the case admits of, were so environed by those that were not, that a serious separation became impossible. The tier of states that lies behind the Carolinas, Virginia, and Georgia, for instance, are in no degree dependent on them for an outlet to the sea, while they are so near neighbours as to overshadow them in a measure. Then the south must always have a northern boundary of free states, if they separate en masse—a circumstance not very desirable, as they would infallibly lose most of their slaves.

On the other hand, the north is very differently situated. New England, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and the tier of states west, are closely connected geographically, must and would go together, and they have one frontier that is nearly all water. They contain already a free population of eight millions, which is rapidly increasing, and are strong enough, and united enough, to act as they please. It is their interest to remain united with the south, and it is also a matter of feeling with them, and I apprehend little to the Union so long as these states continue of this mind.[47]

Lafayette wished to know if I did not think the Union was getting too large for its safety. I thought not, so long as the means of necessary intercommunication were preserved, but just the reverse, as the larger the Union, the less probability there would be of agitating its whole surface by any one interest; and the parties that were tranquil, as a matter of course, would influence those that were disturbed. Were the Union to-day, for instance, confined to the coast, as it was forty years since, there would be no south-western states to hold the southern in check, as we all know is the fact at present, and the danger from nullification would be doubled. These things act both ways; for even the state governments, while they offer positive organised and quasi legal means of resisting the federal government, also afford the same organized local means of counteracting them in their own neighbourhood. Thus, Carolina and Georgia do not pull together in this very affair, and, in a sense, one neutralizes the other. The long and short of the matter was, that the Union was a compromise that grew out of practical wants and facts, and this was the strongest possible foundation for any polity. Men would assail it in words, precisely as they believed it important and valued by the public, to attain their ends.—We were here summoned to the breakfast.

I was well laughed at the table for my ignorance. The family of La Grange live in the real old French style, with an occasional introduction of an American dish, in compliment to a guest. We had obtained hints concerning one or two capital things there, especially one for a very simple and excellent dish, called soupe au lait; and I fancied I had now made discovery the second. A dish was handed to me that I found so excellent, so very appropriate to breakfast, that I sent it to A——, with a request that she would get its history from Madame George Lafayette, who sat next her. The ladies put their heads together, and I soon saw that they were amused at the suggestion. A—— then informed me, that it was an American as well as a French dish, and that she knew great quantities of it had been consumed in the hall at C——, in particular. Of course I protested that I had no recollection of it. "All this is very likely, for it is a good while since you have eaten any. The dish is neither more nor less than pap!"

Two capital mistakes exist in America on the subject of France. One regards its manners, and the other its kitchen. We believe that French deportment is superficial, full of action, and exaggerated. This would truly be a wonder in a people who possess a better tone of manners, perhaps, than any other; for quiet and simplicity are indispensable to high breeding. The French of rank are perfect models of these excellences. As to the cuisine, we believe it is high-seasoned. Nothing can be farther from the truth; spices of all sorts being nearly proscribed. When I went to London with the Vicomte de V——, the first dinner was at a tavern. The moment he touched the soup, he sat with tears in his eyes, and with his mouth open, like a chicken with the pip! "Le diable!" he exclaimed, "celle-ci est infernale!" And infernal I found it too; for after seven years' residence on the Continent, it was no easy matter for even me to eat the food or to drink the wines of England; the one on account of the high seasoning, and the other on account of the brandy.

We left La Grange about noon, and struck into the great post-road as soon as possible. A succession of accidents, owing to the random driving of the postilions, detained us several hours, and it was dark before we reached the first barrière of Paris. We entered the town on our side of the river, and drove into our own gate about eight. The table was set for dinner; the beds were made, the gloves and toys lay scattered about, à la Princesse d'Orange, and we resumed our customary mode of life, precisely as if we had returned from an airing in the country, instead of a journey of three months!



THE END.



James Fenimore Cooper

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