A Motor-Flight Through France

by Edith Wharton

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Chapter V - Nohant to Clermont

THERE happened to us, on leaving Nohant, what had happened after Beauvais: the quiet country house by the roadside, like the mighty Gothic choir, possessed our thoughts to the exclusion of other impressions. As far as La Châtre, indeed—the little town on the Indre, where young Madame Dudevant spent a winter to further her husband's political ambitions—we were still within the Nohant radius; and it was along the straight road we were travelling that poor old Madame Dupin de Francueil—si douillette that she could hardly make the round of the garden—fled in her high-heeled slippers on the fatal night when her son, returning from a gay supper at La Châtre, was flung from his horse and killed at the entrance to the town. These scenes from the Histoire de ma vie are so vivid, they live so poignantly in memory, that in reliving them on the spot one feels, with Goncourt, how great their writer would have been had her intrepid pen more often remained dans le vrai.

La Châtre is a charming town, with a remarkably picturesque approach, on the Nohant side, across an old bridge out of which an old house, with a steep terraced garden, seems to grow with the conscious pleasure of well-grouped masonry; and the streets beyond have an air of ripe experience tempered by gaiety, like that of those ironic old eighteenth-century faces wherein the wrinkles are as gay as dimples.

Southward from La Châtre, the road runs through a beautiful hilly country to Montlucon on the Cher: a fine old border town, with a brave fighting past, and interesting relics of Bourbon ascendancy; but now deeply disfigured by hideous factories and long grimy streets of operatives' houses. In deploring the ravages of modern industry on one of these rare old towns, it is hard to remember that they are not museum pieces, but settlements of human beings with all the normal desire to prosper at whatever cost to the physiognomy of their birthplace; and Montluçon in especial seems to have been a very pelican to the greed of her offspring.

We had meant to spend the night there, but there was a grimness about the inn—the special grimness of which the commercial travellers' hotel in the French manufacturing town holds the depressing secret—that forbade even a glance at the bedrooms; and though it was near sunset we pressed on for Vichy. We had, in consequence, but a cold twilight glimpse of the fine gorge of Montaigut, through which the road cuts its way to Gannat, the first town to the north of the Limagne; and night had set in when we traversed the plain of the Allier. On good French roads, however, a motor-journey by night is not without its compensations; and our dark flight through mysterious fields and woods terminated, effectively enough, with the long descent down a lamp-garlanded boulevard into the inanimate white watering-place.

Vichy, in fact, had barely opened the shutters of its fashionable hotels: the season does not begin till June, and in May only a few premature bathers—mostly English—shiver in corners of the marble halls, or disconsolately peruse last year's news in the deserted reading-rooms. But even in this semi-chrysalis stage the town presented itself, the next morning, as that rarest of spectacles—grace triumphant over the processes of the toilet. Only a pretty woman and a French ville d'eau can look really charming in morning dishabille; and the way in which Vichy accomplishes the feat would be a lesson to many pretty women.

The place, at all seasons, is an object-lesson to less enlightened municipalities; and when one finds one's self vainly wishing that art and history, and all the rich tapestry of the past, might somehow be brought before the eyes of our selfsufficient millions, one might pause to ask if the sight of a well-kept, self-respecting French town, carefully and artistically planned as a setting to the amenities of life, would not, after all, offer the more salutary and surprising example.

Vichy, even among French towns, stands out as a singularly finished specimen of what such municipal pride can accomplish. From its broad plane-shaded promenade, flanked by bright-faced hotels, and by the arcades of the Casino, to the park on the Allier, and the wide circumjacent boulevards, it wears, at every turn, the same trim holiday air, the rouge and patches of smooth gravel, bright flower-borders, gay shops, shady benches, inviting cafés. Even the cab-stands, with their smart vis-à-vis and victorias drawn by plump cobs in tinkling harnesses, seem part of a dream-town, where all that is usually sordid and shabby has been touched by the magic wand of trimness; or where some utopian millionaire has successfully demonstrated that the sordid and shabby need never exist at all.

But, to the American observer, Vichy is perhaps most instructive just because it is not the millionaire's wand which has worked the spell; because the town owes its gaiety and its elegance, not to the private villa, the rich man's "show-place," but to wise public expenditure of the money which the bathers annually pour into its exchequer.

It was, however, rather for the sake of its surroundings than for the study of its unfolding season, that we had come there; and the neighbouring country offered the richest return for our enterprise.

From the plain of the Limagne the hills slope up behind Vichy in a succession of terraces divided by streams and deeply-wooded glens, and connected by the interlacing of admirable roads that civilises the remotest rural districts of France. Climbing these gradual heights to the hill-village of Ferrières, we had, the day after our arrival, our first initiation into what the near future held for us—a glorious vision, across the plain, of the Monts Dore and the Monts de Dôme. The blue mountain haze that had drawn us steadily southward, from our first glimpse of it on the heights of the Berry, now resolved itself into a range of wild volcanic forms, some curved like the bell-shaped apses of the churches of Auvergne, some slenderly cup-like, and showing the hollow rim of the spent crater; all fantastic, individual, indescribably differentiated in line and colour from mountain forms of less violent origin. And between them and us lay the richest contrasting landscape, the deep meadows and luxuriant woodlands of the Allier vale, with here and there a volcanic knoll lifting on its crest an old town or a Rhenish-looking castle. The landscape, thus viewed, presents a perplexing mixture of suggestions, recalling now the brown hill-villages of Umbria, now the robber castles of the Swiss Rhineland; with a hint, again, of the Terra di Lavore in its bare mountain lines, and the prodigal fertility of their lower slopes; so that one felt one's self moving in a confusion of scenes romantically combined, as in the foreground of a Claude or a Wilson, for the greater pleasure of the eclectic eye.

The only landscape that seems to have been excluded from the composition is that of France; all through Auvergne, we never felt ourselves in France. But that is, of course, merely because the traveller's France is apt to be mainly made up of bits of the Ile-de-France and Normandy and Brittany; and not till one has explored the central and southwestern provinces does one learn of the countless Frances within France, and realise that one may find one's "Switzerland, one's Italy" without crossing the Alps to reach them.

We had, the next day, a closer impression of the scene we had looked down on from Ferrières; motoring first along the high ridge above the Limagne to the ancient black hill-town of Thiers, and thence descending again to the plain. Our way led across it, by the charming castled town of Pont-de-Château, to Clermont-Ferrand, which spreads its swarthy mass at the base of the Puy de Dôme—that strangest, sternest of cities, all built and paved in the black volcanic stone of Volvic, and crowned by the sinister splendour of its black cathedral. It was Viollet-le-Duc who added the west front and towers to this high ancient pile; and for once his rash hand was so happily inspired that, at the first glimpse of his twin spires soaring above the roofs of Clermont, one forgives him—for the moment—the wrong he did to Blois, to Pierrefonds and Vézelay.

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