SPRING again, and the long white road unrolling itself southward from Paris. How could one resist the call?
We answered it on the blandest of late March mornings, all April in the air, and the Seine fringing itself with a mist of yellowish willows as we rose over it, climbing the hill to Ville d'Avray. Spring comes soberly, inaudibly as it were, in these temperate European lands, where the grass holds its green all winter, and the foliage of ivy, laurel, holly, and countless other evergreen shrubs, links the lifeless to the living months. But the mere act of climbing that southern road above the Seine meadows seemed as definite as the turning of a leaf—the passing from a black-and-white page to one illuminated. And every day now would turn a brighter page for us.
Goethe has a charming verse, descriptive, it is supposed, of his first meeting with Christiane Vulpius: "Aimlessly I strayed through the wood, having it in my mind to seek nothing."
Such, precisely, was our state of mind on that first day's run. We were simply pushing south toward the Berry, through a more or less familiar country, and the real journey was to begin for us on the morrow, with the run from Châteauroux to Poitiers. But we reckoned without our France! It is easy enough, glancing down the long page of the Guide Continental, to slip by such names as Versailles, Rambouillet, Chartres and Valençay, in one's dash for the objective point; but there is no slipping by them in the motor, they lurk there in one's path, throwing out great loops of persuasion, arresting one's flight, complicating one's impressions, oppressing, bewildering one with the renewed, half-forgotten sense of the hoarded richness of France.
Versailles first, unfolding the pillared expanse of its north façade to vast empty perspectives of radiating avenues; then Rambouillet, low in a damp little park, with statues along green canals, and a look, this moist March weather, of being somewhat below sea-level; then Maintenon, its rich red-purple walls and delicate stone ornament reflected in the moat dividing it from the village street. Both Rambouillet and Maintenon are characteristically French in their way of keeping company with their villages. Rambouillet, indeed, is slightly screened by a tall gate, a wall and trees; but Maintenon's warm red turrets look across the moat, straight into the windows of the opposite houses, with the simple familiarity of a time when class distinctions were too fixed to need emphasising.
Our third château, Valençay—which, for comparison's sake, one may couple with the others though it lies far south of Blois—Valençay bears itself with greater aloofness, bidding the town "keep its distance" down the hill on which the great house lifts its heavy angle-towers and flattened domes. A huge cliff-like wall, enclosing the whole southern flank of the hill, supports the terraced gardens before the château, which to the north is divided from the road by a vast cour d'honneur with a monumental grille and gateway. The impression is grander yet less noble.
But France is never long content to repeat her effects; and between Maintenon and Valençay she puts Chartres and Blois. Ah, these grey old cathedral towns with their narrow clean streets widening to a central place—at Chartres a beautiful oval, like the market-place in an eighteenthcentury print—with their clipped lime-walks, high garden walls, Balzacian gables looking out on sunless lanes under the flanks of the granite giant! Save in the church itself, how frugally all the effects are produced—with how sober a use of greys and blacks, and pale high lights, as in some Van der Meer interior; yet how intense a suggestion of thrifty compact traditional life one gets from the low house-fronts, the barred gates, the glimpses of clean bare courts, the calm yet quick faces in the doorways! From these faces again one gets the same impression of remarkable effects produced by the discreetest means. The French physiognomy if not vividly beautiful is vividly intelligent; but the long practice of manners has so veiled its keenness with refinement as to produce a blending of vivacity and good temper nowhere else to be matched. And in looking at it one feels once more, as one so often feels in trying to estimate French architecture or the French landscape, how much of her total effect France achieves by elimination. If marked beauty be absent from the French face, how much more is marked dulness, marked brutality, the lumpishness of the clumsily made and the unfinished! As a mere piece of workmanship, of finish, the French provincial face—the peasant's face, even—often has the same kind of interest as a work of art.
One gets, after repeated visits to the "show" towns of France, to feel these minor characteristics, the incidental graces of the foreground, almost to the exclusion of the great official spectacle in the centre of the picture; so that while the first image of Bourges or Chartres is that of a cathedral surrounded by a blur, later memories of the same places present a vividly individual town, with doorways, street-corners, faces intensely remembered, and in the centre a great cloudy Gothic splendour.
At Chartres the cloudy splendour is shot through with such effulgence of colour that its vision, evoked by memory, seems to beat with a fiery life of its own, as though red blood ran in its stone veins. It is this suffusion of heat and radiance that chiefly, to the untechnical, distinguishes it from the other great Gothic interiors. In all the rest, colour, if it exists at all, burns in scattered unquiet patches, between wastes of shadowy grey stone and the wan pallor of later painted glass; but at Chartres those quivering waves of unearthly red and blue flow into and repeat each other in rivers of light, from their source in the great western rose, down the length of the vast aisles and clerestory, till they are gathered up at last into the mystical heart of the apse.
A short afternoon's run carried us through dullish country from Chartres to Blois, which we reached at the fortunate hour when sunset burnishes the great curves of the Loire and lays a plum-coloured bloom on the slate roofs overlapping, scale-like, the slope below the castle. There are few finer roof-views than this from the wall at Blois: the blue sweep of gables and ridgelines billowing up here and there into a church tower with its clocheton mailed in slate, or breaking to let through the glimpse of a carved façade, or the blossoming depths of a hanging garden; but perhaps only the eye subdued to tin housetops and iron chimney-pots can feel the full poetry of old roofs.
Coming back to the Berry six weeks earlier than on our last year's visit, we saw how much its wide landscape needs the relief and modelling given by the varied foliage of May. Between bare woods and scarcely budded hedges the great meadows looked bleak and monotonous; and only the village gardens hung out a visible promise of spring. But in the sheltered enclosure at Nohant, spring seemed much nearer; at hand already in clumps of snow-drops and violets loosening the soil, in young red leaves on the rose-standards, and the twitter of birds in the heavy black-fruited ivy of the graveyard wall. A gate leads from the garden into the corner of the grave-yard where George Sand and her children lie under an ancient yew. Feudal even in burial, they are walled off from the village dead, and the tombstone of Maurice Sand, as well as the monstrous stone chest over his mother's grave, bears the name of Dudevant and asserts a claim to the barony. Strange inconsequence of human desires, that the woman who had made her pseudonym illustrious enough to have it assumed by her whole family should cling in death to the obscure name of a repudiated husband; more inconsequent still that the descendant of kings, and the priestess of democracy and Fourierism, should insist on a right to the petty title which was never hers, since it was never Dudevant's to give! On the whole, the gravestones at Nohant are disillusioning; except indeed that of the wretched Solange, with its four tragic words: La mère de Jeanne.
But the real meaning of the place must be sought close by, behind the row of tall windows opening on the tangled mossy garden. They lead, these windows, straight into the life of George Sand: into the big cool dining-room, with its flagged floor and simple white-panelled walls, and the salon adjoining: the salon, alas, so radically remodelled in the unhappy midcentury period of wall-papers, stuffed furniture and centre table, that one seeks in vain for a trace of the original chatelaine of Nohant—that high-spirited, high-heeled old Madame Dupin who still haunts the panelled dining-room and the box-edged garden. Yet the salon has its special story to tell, for in George Sand's culminating time just such a long table with fringed cover and encircling arm-chairs formed the centre of French indoor life. About this elongated board sat the great woman's illustrious visitors, prolonging, as at a mental table d'hôte, that interminable dinner-talk which still strikes the hurried Anglo-Saxon as the typical expression of French sociability; and here the different arts of the household were practised—the painting, carving and fine needle-work which a strongereyed generation managed to carry on by the light of a single lamp. Here, one likes especially to fancy, Maurice Sand exercised his chisel on the famous marionettes for the little theatre, while his mother, fitting their costumes with skilful fingers, listened, silent comme une bête, to the dissertations of Gautier, Flaubert or Dumas. The earlier life of the house still speaks, moreover, from the walls of the drawing-room, with the voice of jealously treasured ancestral portraits—pictures of the demoiselles Verrières, of the great Marshal and the beautiful Aurora— strange memorials of a past which explains so much in the history of George Sand, even to the tempestuous face of Solange Clésinger, looking darkly across the room at her simpering unremorseful progenitors.
Our guide, a close-capped brown-and-ruddy bonne, led us next, by circuitous passages, to the most interesting corner of the house: the little theatre contrived with artless ingenuity out of what might have been a store-room or wine-cellar. One should rather say the little theatres, however, for the mistress of revels had managed to crowd two stages into the limited space at her disposal; one, to the left, an actual scène, with "life-size" scenery for real actors, the other, facing the entrance-door, the more celebrated marionette theatre, raised a few feet from the floor, with miniature proscenium arch and curtain; just such a Puppen-theatre as Wilhelm Meister described to Marianne, with a prolixity which caused that amiable but flighty young woman to fall asleep.
Between the two stages about twenty spectators might have found seats behind the front row of hard wooden benches reserved for the châtelaine and her most distinguished guests. A clean emptiness now pervades this temple of the arts: an emptiness made actually pathetic by the presence, on shelves at the back of the room, of the whole troupe of marionettes, brushed, spotless, well cared for, and waiting only a touch on their wires to spring into life and populate their little stage. There they stand in wistful rows, the duenna, the Chimène, the grande coquette. Pantaloon, Columbine and Harlequin, Neapolitan fishers, odalisques and peasants, brigands and soldiers of the guard; all carved with a certain rude vivacity, and dressed, ingeniously and thriftily, by the indefatigable fingers which drove the quill all night upstairs.
It brought one close to that strange unfathomable life, which only at Nohant grows clear, shows bottom, as it were; closer still to be told by the red-brown bonne that "Monsieur Maurice" had modelled many of his humorous peasant-types on "les gens du pays"; closest of all when she added, in answer to a question as to whether Madame Sand had really made the little frocks herself: "Oh, yes, I remember seeing her at work on them, and helping her with it. I was twelve years old when she died."
Here, then, was an actual bit of the Nohant tradition, before us in robust and lively middle age: one of the berrichonnes whom George Sand loved and celebrated, and who loved and served her in return. For a moment it brought Nohant within touch; yet the final effect of the contact, as one reflected on the vanished enthusiasms and ideals that George Sand's name revives, was the sense that the world of beliefs and ideas has seldom travelled so fast and far as in the years between "Indiana" and to-day.
From La Châtre, just south of Nohant, we turned due west along the valley of the Creuse, through a country possessing some local fame for picturesqueness, but which struck us, in its early spring nudity, as somewhat parched and chalkylooking, without sufficient woodland to drape its angles. It makes up, however, in architectural interest for what its landscape lacks, and not many miles beyond La Châtre the otherwise featureless little town of Neuvy-Saint-Sépulcre presents one feature of unusual prominence.
This is the ancient round church from which the place is named: one of those copies of the church of the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem with which the returning crusader dotted western Europe. Aside from their intrinsic interest, these "sepulchre" churches have gained importance from the fact that but three or four are still extant. The most typical, that of Saint Bénigne at Dijon, has been levelled to a mere crypt, and that of Cambrige deviates from the type by reason of its octagonal dome; so that the church of Neuvy is of quite pre-eminent interest. A late Romanesque nave—itself sufficiently venerable looking to stir the imagination in its own behalf—was appended in the early thirteenth century to the circular shrine; but the latter still presents to the dull old street its unbroken cylindrical wall, built close on a thousand years ago, and surmounted, some ninety years later, by a second story with a Romanesque exterior arcade. At this stage, however, one is left to conjecture, with the aid of expert suggestion, what manner of covering the building was meant to have. The present small dome, perched on the inner drum of the upper gallery, is an expedient of the most obvious sort; and the archæologists have inferred that the thinness of this drum may have made a more adequate form of roofing impossible.
To the idle sight-seer, at any rate, the interior of the church is much more suggestive than its bare outer shell. We were happy enough to enter it toward sunset, when dusk had gathered under the heavy encircling columns, and lights twinkled yellow on the central altar which has so regrettably replaced the "Grotto of the Sepulchre." It was our added good fortune that a small train of the faithful, headed by a red-cassocked verger and a priest with a benignant Massillon-like head, were just making a circuit of the stations of the cross affixed to the walls of the aisle; and as we stood withdrawn, while the procession wound its way between shining altar and shadowy columns, some of the faces of the peasants seemed to carry us as far into the past as the strange symbolic masks on the capitals above their heads.
But what carries one farthest of all is perhaps the fact, well known to modern archæology, that the original church built by Constantine over the grotto-tomb of Christ was not a round temple at all, but a vast basilica with semi-circular apse. The Persians destroyed this building in the seventh century, and the Christians who undertook to restore it could do no more than round the circle of the apse, thus at least covering over the sacred tomb in the centre. So swift was the succession of demolition and reconstruction in that confused and clashing age, so vague and soon obliterated were the records of each previous rule, that when the crusaders came they found no memory of this earlier transformation, and carried back with them that model of the round temple which was henceforth to stand, throughout western Europe, as the venerated image of the primitive church of Jerusalem.
Too much lingering in this precious little building brought twilight on us soon after we joined the Creuse at Argenton; and when we left it again at Le Blanc lights were in the windows, and the rest of our run to Poitiers was a ghostly flight through a moon-washed landscape, with here and there a church tower looming in the dimness, or a heap of ruined walls rising mysteriously above the white bend of a river. We suffered a peculiar pang when a long-roofed pile towering overhead told us that we were passing the great Benedictine abbey of Saint Savin, with its matchless lining of frescoes; but a certain mental satiety urged us on to Poitiers.
Travellers accustomed to the marked silhouette of Italian cities—to their immediate proffer of the picturesque impression—often find the old French provincial towns lacking in physiognomy. Each Italian city, whether of the mountain or the plain, has an outline easily recognisable after individual details have faded, and it is, obviously, much easier to keep separate one's memories of Siena and Orvieto than of Bourges and Chartres. Perhaps, therefore, the few French towns with definite physiognomies seem the more definite from their infrequency; and Poitiers is foremost in this distinguished group.
Not that it offers the distinctive galbe of such bold hill-towns as Angouleme or Laon. Though a hill-town in fact, it somehow makes next to nothing of this advantage, and the late Mr. Freeman was justified in grumbling at the lack of character in its sky-line. That character reveals itself, in fact, not in any picturesqueness of distant effect—in no such far-seen crown as the towers of Laon or the domes of Périgueux—but in the homogeneous interest of the old buildings within the city: the way they carry on its packed romantic history like the consecutive pages of a richly illuminated chronicle. The illustration of that history begins with the strange little "temple" of Saint John, a baptistery of the fourth century, and accounted the earliest Christian building in France—though this applies only to the lower story (now virtually the crypt), the upper having been added some three hundred years later, when baptism by aspersion had replaced the primitive plunge. Unhappily the ancient temple has suffered the lot of the too highly treasured relic, and fenced about, restored, and converted into a dry little museum, has lost all that colour and pathos of extreme age that make the charm of humbler monuments.
This charm, in addition to many others, still clings to the expressive west front of Notre Dame la Grande, the incomparable little Romanesque church holding the centre of the marketplace. Built of a dark grey stone which has taken on—and been suffered to retain—a bloom of golden lichen like the trace of ancient weatherworn gilding, it breaks, at the spring of its portalarches, into a profusion of serried, overlapping sculpture, which rises tier by tier to the splendid Christ Triumphant of the crowning gable, yet never once crowds out and smothers the structural composition, as Gothic ornament, in its most exuberant phase, was wont to do. Through all its profusion of statuary and ornamental carving, the front of Notre Dame preserves that subordination to classical composition that marks the Romanesque of southern France; but between the arches, in the great spandrils of the doorways, up to the typically Poitevin scales of the beautiful arcaded angle turrets, what richness of detail, what splendid play of fancy!
After such completeness of beauty as this little church presents—for its nave and transept tower are no less admirable than the more striking front—even such other monuments as Poitiers has to offer must suffer slightly by comparison. Saint Hilaire le Grand, that notable eleventh-century church, with its triple aisles and its nave roofed by cupolas, and the lower-lying temple of Sainte Radegonde, which dates from the Merovingian queen from whom it takes its name, have both suffered such repeated alterations that neither carries the imagination back with as direct a flight as the slightly less ancient Notre Dame; and the cathedral itself, which one somehow comes to last in an enumeration of the Poitiers churches, is a singularly charmless building. Built in the twelfth century, by Queen Eleanor of Guyenne, at the interesting moment of transition from the round to the pointed arch, and completed later by a wide-sprawling Gothic front, it gropes after and fails of its effect both without and within. Yet it has one memorable possession in its thirteenth-century choir-stalls, almost alone of that date in France—tall severe seats, their backs formed by pointed arches with delicate low-relief carvings between the spandrils. There is, in especial, one small bat, with outspread web-like wings, so exquisitely fitted into its allotted space, and with such delicacy of observation shown in the modelling of its little halfhuman face, that it remains in memory as having the permanence of something classical, outside of dates and styles.
Having lingered over these things, and taken in by the way an impression of the confused and rambling ducal palace, with its magnificent grande salle completed and adorned by Jean de Berry, we began to think remorsefully of the wonders we had missed on our run from Le Blanc to Poitiers. We could not retrace the whole distance; but at least we could return to the curious little town of Chauvigny, of which we had caught a tantalising glimpse above a moonlit curve of the Vienne.
We found it, by day, no less suggestive, and full of unsuspected riches. Of its two large Romanesque churches, the one in the lower town, beside the river, is notable, without, for an extremely beautiful arcaded apse, and contains within a striking fresco of the fifteenth century, in which Christ is represented followed by a throng of the faithful—kings, bishops, monks and clerks—who help to carry the cross. The other, and larger, church, planted on the summit of the abrupt escarpment which lifts the haute ville above the Vienne, has a strange body-guard composed of no fewer than five feudal castles, huddled so close together on the narrow top of the cliff that their outer walls almost touch. The lack, in that open country, of easily fortified points doubtless drove the bishops of Poitiers (who were also barons of Chauvigny) into this strange defensive alliance with four of their noble neighbours; and one wonders how the five-sided ménage kept the peace, when local disturbances made it needful to take to the rock.
The gashed walls and ivy-draped dungeons of the rival ruins make an extraordinarily romantic setting for the curious church of Saint Pierre, staunchly seated on an extreme ledge of the cliff, and gathering under its flank the handful of town within the fortified circuit. There is nothing in architecture so suggestive of extreme age, yet of a kind of hale durability, as these thick-set Romanesque churches, with their prudent vaulting, their solid central towers, the close firm grouping of their apsidal chapels. The Renaissance brought the classic style into such permanent relationship to modern life that eleventhcentury architecture seems remoter than Greece and Rome; yet its buildings have none of the perilous frailty of the later Gothic, and one associates the idea of romance and ruin rather with the pointed arch than with the round.
Saint Pierre is a singularly good example of this stout old school, which saw the last waves of barbarian invasion break at its feet, and seems likely to see the ebb and flow of so many other tides before its stubborn walls go under. It is in their sculptures, especially, that these churches reach back to a dim and fearful world of which few clues remain to us: the mysterious baleful creatures peopling their archivolts and capitals seem to have come out of some fierce vision of Cenobite temptation, when the hermits of the desert fought with the painted devils of the tombs.
The apsidal capitals of Saint Pierre are a very menagerie of such strange demons—evil beasts grinning and mocking among the stocky saints and angels who set forth, unconcerned by such hideous propinquity, the story of the birth of Christ. The animals are much more skilfully modelled than the angels, and at Chauvigny one slender monster, with greyhound flanks, subhuman face, and long curved tail ending in a grasping human hand, haunts the memory as an embodiment of subtle malevolence.