A Motor-Flight Through France

by Edith Wharton

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Chapter III - From Rouen to Fontainebleau

THE Seine, two days later, by the sweetest curves, drew us on from Rouen to Les Andelys, past such bright gardens terraced above its banks, such moist poplar-fringed islands, such low green promontories deflecting its silver flow, that we continually checked the flight of the motor, pausing here, and here, and here again, to note how France understands and enjoys and lives with her rivers.

With her great past, it seems, she has partly ceased to live; for, ask as we would, we could not, that morning, learn the way to King Richard's Château Gaillard on the cliff above Les Andelys. Every turn from the route de Paris seemed to lead straight into the unknown; "mais c'est tout droit pour Paris" was the invariable answer when we asked our way. Yet a few miles off were two of the quaintest towns of France—the Little and Great Andely—surmounted by a fortress marking an epoch in military architecture, and associated with the fortunes of one of the most romantic figures in history; and we knew that if we clung to the windings of the Seine they must lead us, within a few miles, to the place we sought. And so, having with difficulty disentangled ourselves from the route de Paris, we pushed on, by quiet by-roads and unknown villages, by manoirs of grey stone peeping through high thickets of lilac and laburnum, and along shady river-reaches where fishermen dozed in their punts, and cattle in the meadow-grass beneath the willows—till the soft slopes broke abruptly into tall cliffs shaggy with gorse, and the easy flow of the river was forced into a sharp twist at their base. There is something fantastic in this sudden change of landscape near Les Andelys from the familiar French river-scenery to what might be one of Piero della Francesca's backgrounds of strangely fretted rock and scant black vegetation; while the Seine, roused from its progress through yielding meadows, takes a majestic bend toward the Little Andely in the bay of the cliffs, and then sweeps out below the height on which Cœur-de-Lion planted his subtly calculated bastions.

Ah—poor fluttering rag of a ruin, so thin, so time-worn, so riddled with storm and shell, that it droops on its rock like a torn banner with forgotten victories in its folds! How much more eloquently these tottering stones tell their story, how much deeper into the past they take us, than the dapper weather-tight castles—Pierrefonds, Langeais, and the rest—on which the archrestorer has worked his will, reducing them to mere museum specimens, archaeological toys, from which all the growths of time have been ruthlessly stripped! The eloquence of the Château Gaillard lies indeed just there—in its telling us so discursively, so plaintively, the whole story of the centuries—how long it has stood, how much it has seen, how far the world has travelled since then, and to what a hoarse, cracked whisper the voice of feudalism and chivalry has dwindled. . .

The town that once cowered under the protection of those fallen ramparts still groups its stout old houses about a church so grey and venerable, yet so sturdily planted on its ancient piers, that one might fancy its compassionately bidding the poor ghost of a fortress come down and take shelter beneath its vaultings. Commune and castle, they have changed places with the shifting fortunes of the centuries, the weak growth of the town outstripping the arrogant brief bloom of the fortress—Richard's "fair daughter of one year"—which had called it arbitrarily into being. The fortress itself is now no more than one of the stage-properties of the Muse of History; but the town, poor little accidental offshoot of a military exigency, has built up a life for itself, become an abiding centre of human activities—though, by an accident in which the traveller cannot but rejoice, it still keeps, in spite of its sound masonry and air of ancient health, that almost unmodernised aspect which makes some little French burghs recall the figure of a lively centenarian, all his faculties still active, but wearing the dress of a former day.

Regaining the route de Paris, we passed once more into the normal Seine landscape, with smiling towns close-set on its shores, with lilac and wistaria pouring over high walls, with bright little cafés on sunny village squares, with flotillas of pleasure-boats moored under willow-shaded banks.

Never more vividly than in this Seine country does one feel the amenity of French manners, the long process of social adaptation which has produced so profound and general an intelligence of life. Every one we passed on our way, from the canal-boatman to the white-capped baker's lad, from the marchande des quatre saisons to the white dog curled philosophically under her cart, from the pastry-cook putting a fresh plate of brioches in his appetising window to the curé's bonne who had just come out to drain the lettuce on the curé's doorstep—all these persons (under which designation I specifically include the dog) took their ease or pursued their business with that cheerful activity which proceeds from an intelligent acceptance of given conditions. They each had their established niche in life, the frankly avowed interests and preoccupations of their order, their pride in the smartness of the canal-boat, the seductions of the show-window, the glaze of the brioches, the crispness of the lettuce. And this admirable fitting into the pattern, which seems almost as if it were a moral outcome of the universal French sense of form, has led the race to the happy, the momentous discovery that good manners are a short cut to one's goal, that they lubricate the wheels of life instead of obstructing them. This discovery—the result, as it strikes one, of the application of the finest of mental instruments to the muddled process of living—seems to have illuminated not only the social relation but its outward, concrete expression, producing a finish in the material setting of life, a kind of conformity in inanimate things—forming, in short, the background of the spectacle through which we pass, the canvas on which it is painted, and expressing itself no less in the trimness of each individual garden than in that insistence on civic dignity and comeliness so miraculously maintained, through every torment of political passion, every change of social conviction, by a people resolutely addressed to the intelligent enjoyment of living.

By Vernon, with its trim lime-walks en berceau, by Mantes with its bright gardens, and the graceful over-restored church which dominates its square, we passed on to Versailles, forsaking the course of the Seine that we might have a glimpse of the country about Fontainebleau.

At the top of the route du Buc, which climbs by sharp windings from the Place du Château at Versailles, one comes upon the arches of the aqueduct of Buc—one of the monuments of that splendid folly which created the" Golden House" of Louis XIV, and drew its miraculous groves and gardens from the waterless plain of Versailles. The aqueduct, forming part of the extravagant scheme of irrigation of which the Machine de Marly and the great canal of Maintenon commemorate successive disastrous phases, frames, in its useless lofty openings, such charming glimpses of the country to the southwest of Versailles, that it takes its place among those abortive architectural experiments which seem, after all, to have been completely justified by time.

The landscape upon which the arches look is a high-lying region of wood and vale, with châteaux at the end of long green vistas, and old flowery villages tucked into folds of the hills. At the first turn of the road above Versailles the well-kept suburbanism of the Parisian environ gives way to the real look of the country—well-kept and smiling still, but tranquil and sweetly shaded, with big farmyards, quiet country lanes, and a quiet country look in the peasants' faces.

In passing through some parts of France one wonders where the inhabitants of the châteaux go when they emerge from their gates—so interminably, beyond those gates, do the flat fields, divided by straight unshaded roads, reach out to every point of the compass; but here the wooded undulations of the country, the friendliness of the villages, the recurrence of big rambling farmsteads—some, apparently, the remains of fortified monastic granges—all suggest the possibility of something resembling the English rural life, with its traditional ties between park and fields.

The brief journey between Versailles and Fontainebleau offers—if one takes the longer way, by Saint Rémy-les-Chevreuse and Etampes—a succession of charming impressions, more varied than one often finds in a long day's motor-run through France; and midway one comes upon the splendid surprise of Dourdan.

Ignorance is not without its æsthetic uses; and to drop down into the modest old town without knowing—or having forgotten, if one prefers to put it so—the great castle of Philip Augustus, which, moated, dungeoned, ivy-walled, still possesses its peaceful central square—to come on this vigorous bit of mediæval arrogance, with the little houses of Dourdan still ducking their humble roofs to it in an obsequious circle—well! to taste the full flavour of such sensations, it is worth while to be of a country where the last new grain-elevator or office building is the only monument that receives homage from the surrounding architecture.

Dourdan, too, has the crowning charm of an old inn facing its château-fort—such an inn as Manon and des Grieux dined in on the way to Paris—where, in a large courtyard shaded by trees, one may feast on strawberries and cheese at a table enclosed in clipped shrubs, with dogs and pigeons amicably prowling for crumbs, and the host and hostess, their maid-servants, ostlers and marmitons breakfasting at another long table, just across the hedge. Now that the demands of the motorist are introducing modern plumbing and Maple furniture into the uttermost parts of France, these romantic old inns, where it is charming to breakfast, if precarious to sleep, are becoming as rare as the mediæval keeps with which they are, in a way, contemporaneous; and Dourdan is fortunate in still having two such perfect specimens to attract the attention of the archæologist.

Etampes, our next considerable town, seemed by contrast rather featureless and disappointing; yet, for that very reason, so typical of the average French country town—dry, compact, unsentimental, as if avariciously hoarding a long rich past—that its one straight grey street and squat old church will hereafter always serve for the ville de province background in my staging of French fiction. Beyond Etampes, as one approaches Fontainebleau, the scenery grows extremely picturesque, with bold outcroppings of blackened rock, fields of golden broom, groves of birch and pine—first hints of the fantastic sandstone scenery of the forest. And presently the long green aisles opened before us in all the freshness of spring verdure—tapering away right and left to distant ronds-points, to mossy stone crosses and obelisks—and leading us toward sunset to the old town in the heart of the forest.

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