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Chapter 8

EXCURSION UP THE RHINE, &c.


LETTER VIII.

Preparations for leaving-Paris.—Travelling arrangements.—Our Route.—The Chateau of Ecouen.—The Croisée.—Senlis.—Peronne.—Cambray.—Arrival at the Frontier.—Change in the National Character.—Mons.—Brussels.—A Fête.—The Picture Gallery.—Probable Partition of Belgium.


Dear ——,

We had been preparing for our summer excursion some time, but were unable to get away from Paris before the 18th of July. Our destination was undetermined, health and pleasure being the objects, though, a portion of our party having never seen Belgium, it was settled to visit that country in the commencement of the journey, let it end where it might The old caleche was repaired for the purpose, fitted with a new rumble to contain Francois and Jetty (the Saxon femme de chambre, hired in Germany), the vache was crammed, sacks stowed, passport signed, and orders were sent for horses. We are a little apt to boast of the facilities for travelling in America, and, certainly, so long as one can keep in the steam-boats or on the rail-roads, and be satisfied with mere velocity, no part of the world can probably compete with us, the distances considered; but we absolutely want the highest order of motion, which, I think, beyond all question, is the mode of travelling post. By this method, your privacy is sacred, you are master of your own hours, going where you please, and stopping when you please; and, as for speed, you can commonly get along at the rate of ten miles in the hour, by paying a trifle in addition, or you can go at half that rate should it better suit your humour. A good servant and a good carriage are indispensable, and both are to be had at very reasonable rates, in this part of the world.

I never felt the advantage of this mode of travelling, and I believe we have now tried nearly all the others, or the advantages of the Parisian plan of living, so strongly as on the present occasion. Up to the last moment, I was undecided by what route to travel. The furniture of the apartment was my own, and it was our intention to return to Paris, to pass the winter. The luggage had been stowed early in the morning, the carriage was in the court ready to hook on, and at ten we sat down quietly to breakfast, as usual, with scarcely a sign of movement about us. Like old campaigners, the baggage had been knowingly reduced to the very minimum admissible, no part of the furniture was deranged, but everything was in order, and you may form some idea of the facilities, when you remember that this was the condition of a family of strangers, that in half an hour was to start on a journey of several months' duration, to go—they knew not whither.

A few minutes before ten, click-clack, click-clack, gave notice of the approach of the post-horses. The porte-cochère opened, and two votaries of the old-fashioned boot enter, each riding one and leading another horse. All this is done quietly, and as a matter of course; the cattle are put before the carriage without a question being asked, and the two liveried roadsters place themselves by the sides of their respective beasts. In the mean time, we had entered the caleche, said adieu to the cook, who was left in charge of the apartment, a trust that might, however, equally well have been confided to the porter, kissed our hands to the family of M. de V——, and the other inmates of the hotel, who crowded the windows to see us off. Up to this moment, I had not decided even by what road to travel! The passport had been taken out for Brussels, and last year, you may recollect, we went to that place by Dieppe, Abbeville, Douay, and Arras. The "Par quelle route, monsieur?" of the postilion that rode the wheel-horse, who stood with a foot in the stirrup, ready to get up, brought me to a conclusion. "A St. Denis!" the question compelling a decision, and all my doubts terminating, as doubts are apt to terminate, by taking the most beaten path.

The day was cool and excessively windy, while the thermometer had stood the previous afternoon but one, at 93°, in the shade. We were compelled to travel with the carriage-windows closed, the weather being almost wintry. As we drove through the streets, the common women cried after us, "They are running away from the cholera;" an accusation that we felt we did not merit, after having stood our ground during the terrible months of April and May. But popular impulses are usually just as undiscriminating as the favouritism of the great: the mistake is in supposing that one is any better than the other.

When we had reached the city where the Kings of France are buried, it was determined to sleep at Senlis, which was only four posts further, the little town that we visited with so much satisfaction in 1827. This deviation from the more direct road led us by Gonesse, and through a district of grain country, that is less monotonous than most of the great roads that lead from Paris. We got a good view of the chateau of Ecouen, looking vast and stately, seated on the side of a distant hill. I do not know into whose hands this princely pile has fallen since the unhappy death of the last of the Condés, but it is to be hoped into those of the young Duc D'Aumale, for I believe he boasts the blood of the Montmorencies, through some intermarriage or other; and if not, he comes, at least, of a line accustomed to dwell in palaces. I do not like to see these historical edifices converted into manufactories, nor am I so much of a modern utilitarian as to believe the poetry of life is without its correcting and useful influences. Your cold, naked utilitarian, holds a sword that bruises as well as cuts; and your sneaking, trading aristocrat, like the pickpocket who runs against you in the crowd before he commits his theft, one that cuts as well as bruises.

We were at Ecouen not long before the death of its last possessor, and visited its wide but untenanted halls with strong interest. The house was first erected by some Montmorency, or other, at or near the time of the crusades, I believe; though it has been much altered since. Still it contains many curious vestiges of the taste of that remote age. The old domestic who showed us through the building was as quaint a relic as anything about the place. He had accompanied the family into exile, and passed many years with them in England. In courtesy, respect, and delicate attention, he would have done credit to the court of Louis XIV; nor was his intelligence unworthy of his breeding. This man, by the way, was the only Frenchman whom I ever knew address an Englishman (or, as in my case, one whom he mistook for an Englishman), by the old appelation of milord. The practice is gone out, so far as my experience extends.

I remember to have learned from this courteous old servant, the origin of the common term croisée, which is as often used in large houses as that of fenêtre. At the period when every man's heart and wishes were bound up in the excitement and enterprise of the crusades, and it was thought that heaven was to be entered sword in hand, the cross was a symbol used as a universal ornament. Thus the aperture for a window was left in the wall, and a stone cross erected in the centre. The several compartments in the casements came from the shape of the cross, and the term croisée from croix. All this is plain enough, and perhaps there are few who do not know it; but gazing at the ornaments of Ecouen, my eyes fell on the doors, where I detected crosses in the most familiar objects. There is scarcely a panelled door, twenty years old, in all America, that does not bear this evidence of the zeal, and, if you will, the superstition of those distant ages! The form of the door is made by the exterior stile; a cross is then built within it, and the open spaces are filled with panels, as, in the case of the window, it is filled with the sash. The exactitude of the form, the antiquity of the practice, its obvious connexion with the common feeling, and the inability to account for the usage in any other way, leave no doubt, in my mind, of its origin, though I do not remember to have ever met with such an account of it, in any author. If this conjecture be true, we Protestants, while fastidiously, not to say foolishly, abstaining from the use of a symbol that prejudice has led us to think peculiarly unsuited to our faith, have been unconsciously living with it constantly before our eyes. But the days of puritan folly and puritan vice (there is nothing more vicious than self-righteousness, and the want of charity it engenders) are numbered, and men are beginning to distinguish between the exaggerations of fanaticism and the meek toleration of pure Christianity. I can safely say that the lowest, the most degraded, and the most vulgar wickedness, both as to tone and deed, and the most disordered imaginations, that it has ever been my evil fortune to witness, or to associate with, was met with at school, among the sons of those pious forefathers, who fancied they were not only saints themselves, but that they also were to be the progenitors of long lines of saints. It is a melancholy truth, that a gentleman-like training does more for the suppression of those abominations than all the dogmas that the pilgrims have imported into the country.

We reached Senlis in time for dinner, and while the repast was getting ready, we strolled through the place, in order to revive the sensations with which we had visited it five years before. But, alas! these are joys, which, like those of youth are not renewable at pleasure. I could hardly persuade myself it was the same town. The walls, that I had then fancied lined with the men-at-arms of the Charleses of France, and the English Henries and Edwards, had now lost all their peculiarities, appearing mean and common-place; and as to the gate, from which we had almost heard the trumpets of the heralds, and the haughty answer to a bold summons of surrender, we absolutely had difficulty in persuading ourselves that we had found it at all. Half Europe had been roamed over since the time when, fresh from America, we made the former visit, predisposed to gaze with enthusiasm at every relic of a former age and a different state of society.

If we were disagreeably disappointed in the antiquities of the town, we were as agreeably disappointed in the inn. It was clean, gave us a good dinner, and, as almost invariably proves to be the case in France, also gave us good beds. I do not remember ever to have been more fatigued than by the five posts between Paris and this place. The uneven pavés, the random and careless driving of the postillions, with whom it is a point of honour to gallop over the broken streets of the villages, besides having a strong fellow-feeling for the smiths, always makes the eight or ten posts nearest to Paris, much the most disagreeable part of a journey to or from the French capital.

We dined at six, exhausted the curiosities of Senlis, and went to bed by daylight!

The next morning was fresh and bland, and I walked ahead of the carriage. A wood-cutter was going to the forests to make faggots, and we fell into discourse. This man assured me that he should get only ten sous for his day's work! The view of the principal church-tower of Senlis as beautiful, and, in a slight degree, it carried the mind back to the fifteenth century.

You have travelled to and from Paris with me so often, that I can only add we found the same fatiguing monotony, on this occasion, as on all the others. We reached Peronne early, and ordered beds. Before dinner we strolled around the ramparts, which are pleasant of themselves though the place stands in a marsh, which renders its position not only strong, but strongly disagreeable. We endeavoured in vain to find some features to revive the pictures of "Quentin Durward." There was no sign of a soldier in the place, though barracks were building. The French are evidently less jealous of this frontier, than of that on the east, or the one next the Austrians.

The next morning we breakfasted at Cambray. Here we found a garrison, and considerable activity. The citadel is well placed, and the esplanade is a pretty walk. We visited the cathedral, which contains a monument to Fenelon, by our friend David. We were much gratified by this work, which ranks among his best. Near Valenciennes we broke a tire, and were detained two hours. Here the garrison was still stronger, the place in better condition, and the troops mounted guard with their marching accoutrements about them; all of which, I presume, was owing to the fact, that this is the last fortified town on the road. We did not get to the frontier until seven, and the French postilions broke another bolt before we got fairly rid of them, compelling us to wait an hour to have it mended. We were now in a low wet country, or one perfectly congenial to cholera; it was just the hour when the little demons of miasma are said to be the most active, and to complete the matter, we learned that the disease was in the village. The carriage-windows were closed, while I walked about, from door to door, to pacify uneasiness by curiosity. Use, however, had made us all tolerably indifferent, and little P—— settled the matter by remarking it was nothing after all, for here only two or three died daily, while at Paris there had been a thousand! Older heads than his, often take material facts more in a lump than this.

The change in the national character is so evident, immediately on crossing into Belgium, as to occasion surprise. The region was, at no remote period, all Flanders. The same language is still spoken, the same religion professed in both countries, and yet a certain secret moral influence appears to have extended itself from the capital of each country, until they have met on the frontier, where both have been arrested within their proper geographical limits. We had come into this village on a gallop, driven with the lighthearted étourderie of French vanity, and we left it gravely, under the guidance of postilions who philosophically smoked, as their cattle trotted along like elephants.

It was quite late when we reached Mons, where we found a good house, of unexceptionable neatness: of course we were in no haste to quit it the next day. The distance to Brussels was so short that we took it leisurely, reaching the Hôtel de l'Europe at three. It was a fête, on account of the anniversary of the arrival of Leopold, who had now reigned just a twelvemonth. He passed our window, while we were still at table, on his way to the theatre. The royal cortege was not very brilliant, consisting of four carriages, each drawn by two horses, which, by the way, are quite enough for any coachman to manage, in descending the formidable hill that leads from the great square.

You have now been with me three times, in Brussels, and I shall not go over the old ground again. We revisited some of the more prominent places of interest, and went to a few others that were neglected on former occasions. Among the rest we took a look at the public picture-gallery, which greatly disappointed us. The Flemish school naturally awakened our expectations, but a fine Gerard Douw and a few other old paintings were all that struck us, and as a whole, we gave a preference to the paintings of the present day.

The King appears to be personally popular, even those who have no faith in the duration of the present order of things, and who politically are his opponents, speaking well of him. The town has but few strangers, though the presence of a court renders it a little more gay than it was last year. The aspect of everything is gloomy, for the country may be again engaged in a war of existence, in a week. Many still think the affair will end in a partition; France, Prussia, and Holland getting the principal shares. I make no doubt that everybody will profit more by the change than they who brought it about.




James Fenimore Cooper

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