Read CHAPTER VII - A RACINE CELEBRATION of Chateau and Country Life in France, free online book, by Mary King Waddington, on ReadCentral.com.

MAREUIL-SUR-OURCQ, April 20th, 1899.

I could scarcely believe I was in our quiet little town of La Ferte-Milon to-day. Such a transformation flags flying, draperies at all the windows, garlands of greens and flowers across the streets, and a fine triumphal arch all greens and flowers arranged about the centre of the Grande Rue. Many people standing about, looking on, and making suggestions; altogether, an air de fête which is most unusual in these sleepy little streets where nothing ever passes, except at four o’clock, when the three schools come out, and clatter down the street. The Ecole Maternelle comes first, the good Mere Cecile bringing up the rear of the procession, holding the smallest children, babies three and four years old, by the hand, three or four more clinging to her skirts, and guiding them across the perilous passage of the bridge over the canal. It is a pretty view from the bridge. The canal (really the river Ourcq, canalisee), which has preserved its current and hasn’t the dead, sluggish look of most canals, runs alongside of the Mail, a large green place with grass, big trees, a broad walk down the centre, and benches under the trees. It is a sort of promenade for the inhabitants and also serves as a village green, where all the fairs, shows and markets are held. The opposite bank is bordered by quaint old houses, with round towers and gardens, full of bright flowers, running down to the water’s edge. There is one curious old colombier which has been there for centuries; near the bridge there is a lavoir, where there are always women washing. They are all there to-day, but much distracted, wildly interested in all that is going on and the unwonted stir in the streets; chattering hard, and giving their opinions as to the decoration of the arch, which is evidently a source of great pride to the town.

On a bright sunny day, when the red roofs and flowers are reflected in the water, and it is not too cold, their work doesn’t seem very hard; but on a winter afternoon, when they have to break the ice sometimes, and a biting wind is blowing down the canal, it is pitiable to see the poor things thinly clad, shivering and damp; their hands and arms red and chapped with cold. On the other side of the bridge, the canal wanders peacefully along through endless green meadows, bordered with poplars, to Marolles, a little village where there is the first écluse on the way to Paris.

We had been talking vaguely all winter of doing something at La Ferte-Milon to fêter the bicentenaire of Racine. They were making preparations at Paris, also at Port Royal, and it seemed hard to do nothing in his native place. His statue in the Grande Rue is one of the glories of La Ferte.

Jean Racine was born in La Ferte in 1639. He lost both father and mother young, and was brought up by his grandparents. He was sent first to school at Beauvais, later, while still quite a youth, to Port Royal. His stay there influenced considerably his character and his writings; and though he separated himself entirely from the “Solitaires” during the years of his brilliant career as poet and courtier, there remained always in his heart a latent tenderness for the quiet green valley of the Chevreuse, where he had passed all his years of adolescence, listening to the good Fathers, and imbibing their doctrines of the necessity of divine grace to complete the character. His masters were horrified and distressed when his talent developed into plays, which brought him into contact with actors and actresses, and made him an habitue of a frivolous Court.

There is a pretty letter from one of his aunts, a religieuse de Port Royal, begging him to keep away from “des frequentations abominables,” and to return to a Christian life.

His career was rapid and brilliant. He was named to the Academie Francaise in 1673, and when he retired from the theatre was a welcome and honoured guest at the most brilliant court of the world. He was made private historian to the King and accompanied him on various campaigns. There are amusing mentions of the poets-historians (Boileau was also royal historian) in the writings of their contemporaries, “les messieurs du sublime,” much embarrassed with their military accoutrements and much fatigued by the unwonted exercise and long days on horseback. The King showed Racine every favour. He was lodged at Versailles and at Marly and was called upon to amuse and distract the monarch when the cares of state and increasing years made all diversions pall upon him. He saw the decline and disgrace of Madame de Montespan, the marvellous good fortune of Madame de Maintenon. His famous tragedies of Esther and Athalie were written at Madame de Maintenon’s request for her special institution of St. Cyr, and the performances were honoured by the presence of the King. Racine himself directed the rehearsals and the music was composed by Jean Baptiste Moreau, organist of St. Cyr. The youthful actresses showed wonderful aptitude in interpreting the passionate, tender verses of the poet. Young imaginations worked and jealousies and rivalries ran high. After a certain number of representations Mme. de Maintenon was obliged to suspend the performances in public, with costumes and music. The plays were only given in private at the Maison de St. Cyr; the young scholars playing in the dress of the establishment. He made his peace with Port Royal before he died. He submitted Phedre to his former masters and had the satisfaction of being received again by the “Grand Arnauld," who had been deeply offended by his ingratitude and his criticisms and ridicule of many of his early friends and protectors. He asked to be buried there, and his body remained until the destruction and devastation of Port Royal, when it was removed to Paris and placed in the Church of St. Etienne des Monts.

He returned many times to La Ferte-Milon, and the great poet and private historian of the Roi Soleil must often have climbed the steep little street that leads to the ruins, and thought of the changes, since the little boy lay on the grass at the foot of the great walls, dreaming golden dreams of the future, which for him were so brilliantly realised.

In a small country town one is slow to adopt new ideas, slower still to carry them out, but the Mayor and cure were both most anxious to do something in the birthplace of the poet, and that was the general feeling in the Department. After many discussions we finally arrived at a solution, or at least we decided what we wanted: a special service in the fine old church of Notre Dame, which stands beautifully on the hill, close to the ruins; a representation of the Comedie Francaise, and of course a banquet at the Sauvage, with all the official world, senators, Préfet, Academiciens a band of music, a torch-light procession, and as many distinguished visitors as we could get hold of. Funds of course were a necessary item, but all the countryside contributed largely, and we knew that the artists would give their services gratis.

We arranged a breakfast at my house in Paris with Mons. Casimir-Perier, late President of the Republic, who was always ready to lend his influence for anything that interests the people, and teaches them something of their great men, and Mons. Claretie, Directeur of the Comedie Francaise, a most cultivated, charming man. He is generally rather chary of letting his pensionnaires play en province, but this really was an occasion to break through his rules, and he was quite ready to help us in every way. We had also M. Sebline, Senator of the Aisne, and l’Abbe Marechal, cure of La Ferte-Milon. We had wanted one of the Administrateurs of the Chemin de Fer du Nord to arrange about a free transport for the actors, but there seemed some trouble about getting hold of the right man, and Sebline promised to see about that.

The Abbe Marechal and I were very ambitious for the theatrical part of the entertainment and had views of Esther with the costumes, and choruses of Moreau, but M. Claretie said that would be impossible. It was difficult enough to arrange in Paris with all the singers, instruments, and costumes at hand and would be impossible in the country with our modest resources. I think the idea of a tent on a village green rather frightened him; and he didn’t quite see the elite of his company playing in such a cadre no decor and probably very bad acoustics. However, Sebline reassured him. He knew the tent and its capabilities, having seen it figure on various occasions, comices agricoles, banquets de pompiers, at village fêtes generally, and said it could be arranged quite well.

We discussed many programmes, but finally accepted whatever M. Claretie would give an act of “Les Plaideurs,” and two or three of “Berenice,” with Mme. Bartet, who is charming in that rôle. The Abbe Marechal undertook the music in his church, and I was sure he would succeed in having some of the choruses of Esther. His heart was quite set on it. Once he had settled our programme, the conversation drifted away from the purely local talk, and was brilliant enough. All the men were clever and good talkers, and all well up in Racine, his career, and the various phases of his work.

From the classics we got into modern plays and poets, and there of course the differences of opinion were wide; but I think the general public (people in the upper galleries) like better when they go to the Francaise to see a classic piece Roman emperors and soldiers, and vestal virgins and barbarians in chains and to listen to their long tirades. The modern light comedy, even when it treats of the vital subjects of the day, seems less in its place in those old walls. I quite understand one couldn’t see Britannicus, Mithridate, nor the Cid every evening.

We came down here several times to see how things were getting on, and always found the little town quite feverishly animated. We had succeeded in getting the band of the regiment stationed at Soissons. I wrote to the Colonel, who said he would send it with pleasure, but that he couldn’t on his own authority. An application must be made to the Ministere de la Guerre. There is always so much red tape in France. One writes and receives so many letters about anything one wants to do a Christmas Tree in the school-house a distribution of soup for the poor and old a turn in a road to be rounded, etc. However, the permission was graciously accorded for the band. The Mayor’s idea was to station it on the Mail, where quantities of people would congregate who couldn’t get into the church or the tent.

We went one day to have tea with the Abbe Marechal in his nice old presbytère; the salon opening out on a large, old-fashioned garden with fine trees, and a view of the church towers in the distance. He was quite pleased with all that he had arranged for his church service. One of his friends, Abbe Vignon, a most interesting man and eloquent preacher, promised to deliver a lecture on Racine from the pulpit; and M. Vincent d’Indy, the distinguished composer and leader of the modern school of music, undertook the music with Mme. Jeanne Maunay as singer; he himself presiding at the organ.

I tried to persuade the proprietors of all the chateaux in the neighbourhood to come, but I can’t say I had much success. Some had gout some had mourning. I don’t remember if any one “had married a wife and therefore couldn’t come.”

However, we shall fill our own house, and give breakfast and dinner to any one who will come. To-day we have been wandering about on the green near the ruins, trying to find some place where we can give our friends tea. The service in the church will certainly be long, and before the theatrical performance begins we should like to arrange a little goûter but where? It is too far to go back to our house, and the Sauvage, our usual resort, will be packed on that day, and quite off its head, as they have two banquets morning and evening. The “Cafe des Ruines,” a dirty little place just under the great walls of the chateau, didn’t look inviting; but there was literally nothing else, so we interviewed the proprietor, went in to the big room down stairs, which was perfectly impossible, reeking with smoke, and smelling of cheap liquor; but he told us he had a “très belle salle” up stairs, where we should be quite alone. We climbed up a dark, rickety little turning staircase, and found ourselves in quite a good room, with three large windows on the green; the walls covered with pictures from the cheap illustrated papers, and on the whole not too dirty. We have taken it for the afternoon, told the patron we would come to-morrow, put up tables, and make as many preparations as we could for the great day. He was very anxious to furnish something some “vin du pays;” but we told him all we wanted was fire, plenty of hot water, and a good scrubbing of floor and windows.

It is enchanting this afternoon. We are taking advantage of the fine weather to drive about the country, and show our friends some of our big farms and quaint little villages. They look exactly as they did a hundred years ago, “when the Cossacks were here,” as they say in the country. Some of the inns have still kept their old-fashioned signs and names. Near May, on the road to Meaux, Bossuet’s fine old cathedral town, there is a nice old square red-brick house, “L’Auberge du Veau qui Tete” (The Inn of the Sucking Calf), which certainly indicates that this is great farming country. There are quantities of big white oxen, cows, and horses in the fields, but the roads are solitary. One never meets anything except on market day. The Florians who live in Seine et Marne, which is thickly populated villages and chateaux close together were much struck with the loneliness and great stretches of wood and plain.

We are praying for fine weather, as rain would be disastrous. The main street looks really charming. The green arch is nearly finished, and at night, when everything is illuminated, will be most effective.

22nd. It rained yesterday afternoon and all night not light April showers, but a good, steady downpour. Francis and Ctesse. de Gontaut arrived from Paris in his little open automobile. Such a limp, draggled female as emerged from the little carriage I never saw. They had had some sharp showers; pannes (breakdowns), too, and she says she pushed the carriage up all the hills. She didn’t seem either tired or cross, and looked quite bright and rested when she reappeared at dinner.

Various friends arrived this morning, and we have been in La Ferte all the afternoon. The draperies and festoons of flowers don’t look any the worse for the heavy rain, and at least it is over, and we shall probably have sun to-morrow. The tent is up on the green, and looks fairly large. I don’t think any one will see anything except in the first eight or ten rows of chairs, but it seems they will all hear. The stage was being arranged, and, much to our amusement, they told us the Empire chairs and tables had been lent by the Abbe Marechal. He is a collectionneur, and has some handsome furniture. We inspected our tea-room, which didn’t look too bad. Our men were there with tables, china, etc., and when it is all arranged we shall have quite a respectable buffet. The landlord was very anxious to decorate the tables with greens, flags, and perhaps a bust of Racine with a crown of laurels, but we told him it would be better not to complicate things.

The view was lovely to-day from the top of the hill the ruins looking enormous, standing out against the bright blue sky, and soft and pink at the top where the outline was irregular and the walls crumbling a little. We had some difficulty in collecting our party, and finally discovered Francis, Ctesse de Gontaut and Christiani having chocolate and cakes in the back parlour of the grocer’s shop (nothing like equality on these occasions), who was telling them all the little gossip of the town, and naming the radicals who wouldn’t go to the church.

We had a pleasant evening with music and “baraque” which is not very fatiguing as a mental exercise. I tried to send all the party to bed early, and have come upstairs myself, but I still hear the click of the billiard balls, and sounds of merriment downstairs. It is a splendid starlight night, the sky quite blue over the pines. I think we shall have beautiful weather for our fête. I have very vague ideas as to how many people we shall have for breakfast and dinner to-morrow, but the “office” is warned. I hope we shan’t starve.

April 24th. Monday.

We had a beautiful and most successful day yesterday. All the household was stirring fairly early, as we had to get ourselves in to La Ferte before 12 o’clock. We started in all sorts of conveyances train, carriage, voiturette and found the Grande Rue full of people. The official breakfast was over, also the visit to the Mairie, where there are a few souvenirs of the poet his picture, acte de naissance, and signature. The procession was just forming to climb up the steep, little street that leads to the church, so we took a short cut (still steeper), and waited outside the doors to see them arrive. It was a pretty sight to see the cortege wind up the path the Bishop of Soissons and several other ecclesiastics in their robes, blackcoated officials, some uniforms the whole escorted by groups of children running alongside, and a fair sprinkling of women in light dresses, with flowers on their hats, making patches of colour. The church was crowded one didn’t remark the absence of certain “esprits forts” who gloried in remaining outside and the service was most interesting. The lecture or rather “Éloge de Racine” was beautifully given by the Abbe Vignot. It was not very easy for a priest to pronounce from the pulpit an eulogium on the poet and dramatic author who had strayed so far from the paths of grace and the early teachings of Port Royal, where the “petit Racine” had been looked upon as a model pupil destined to rise high in the ecclesiastical world; but the orator made us see through the sombre tragedies of Phedre, Britannicus and others the fine nature of the poet, who understood so humanly the passions that tempt and warp the soul, and showed a spirit of tolerance very remarkable in those days. He dwelt less upon the courtier; spoke more of the Christian of his last days. He certainly lent to the “charm of the poet, the beauty of his voice,” for it was impossible to hear anything more perfect than the intonation and diction of the speaker.

There was a short address from Monseigneur Deramecourt, Bishop of Soissons a stately figure seated on the Episcopal throne in the chancel. The music was quite beautiful. We had the famous “Chanteurs de St. Gervais,” and part of the chaeurs d’Esther, composed by Moreau, and sung in splendid style by Mme. Jeanne Maunay, M. Vincent d’Indy accompanying on the organ. The simple sixteenth century chaunts sung by the St. Gervais choir sounded splendidly in the fine old cathedral. The tones seemed fuller and richer than in their Paris church.

We went out a little before the end to see what was going on on the green. It was still quite a climb from the church, and all the people of the upper town had turned out to see the sight. It is quite a distinct population from the lower town. They are all canal hands, and mostly a very bad lot. The men generally drink not enough to be really intoxicated (one rarely sees that in France), but enough to make them quarrelsome; and the women almost all slatternly and idle. They were standing at their doors, babies in their arms, and troops of dirty, ragged, pretty little children playing on the road, and accompanying us to the green, begging for “un petit sou.”

We saw the cortege winding down again, the robes and banners of the clergy making a great effect, and we heard in the distance the strains of the military band stationed on the Mail echoes of the Marseillaise and the “Pere la Victoire” making a curious contrast to the old-world music we had just been listening to in the church. Our party scattered a little. Francis went down to the station with his auto to get the Duc and Duchesse d’Albufera, who had promised to come for the Comedie and dinner. They are neighbours, and have a beautiful place not very far off Montgobert, in the heart of the Villers-Cotteret forest. He is a descendant of Suchet, one of Napoleon’s Marshals, and they have a fine picture of the Marshal in uniform, and various souvenirs of the Emperor. Francis had some difficulty in making his way through the Grande Rue which was packed with people very unwilling to let any vehicle pass. However, they had a certain curiosity about the little carriage, which is the first one to appear in this part of the country where one sees only farmers’ gigs on two high wheels, or a tapissière, a covered carriage for one horse. However, as every one knew him they were good natured enough, and let him pass, but he could not get any further than the foot of the street too steep for any carriage to venture.

It was a pretty sight as we got to the Place. Quantities of people walking about many evident strangers, seeing the ruins for the first time. There was a band of schoolboys, about twenty, with a priest, much excited. They wanted to go in the tent and get good places, but were afraid of missing something outside, and were making little excursions in every direction, evidently rather worrying their Director. The tent, fairly large, looked small under the shadow of the great walls. We looked in and found a good many people already in their places, and saw that the first two or three rows of red arm-chairs were being kept for the quality. One of the sights was our two tall men standing at the door of the rather dirty, dilapidated “Cafe des Ruines,” piloting our friends past the groups of workmen smoking and drinking in the porch, and up the dark, rickety staircase. I don’t think any one would have had the courage to go up, if Henrietta hadn’t led the way once up, the effect of our banqueting-hall was not bad. The servants had made it look very well with china and silver brought from the house, also three or four fresh pictures taken from the illustrated papers to cover those which already existed, and which looked rather the worse for smoke and damp. We were actually obliged to cover General Boulanger and his famous black charger with a “Bois de Boulogne lé Matin,” with carriages, riders, bicycles, pretty women and children strolling about.

The view from the windows was charming, and it was amusing to watch all the people toiling up the path. We recognised many friends, and made frantic signs to them to come and have tea. We had about three-quarters of an hour before the Comedie began, and when we got to the tent it was crowded all the dignitaries Bishop, Préfet, Senator, Deputy (he didn’t object to the theatrical performance), M. Henri Houssaye, Academician; M. Roujon, Directeur des Beaux Arts, sitting in the front row in their red arm-chairs, and making quite as much of a show for the villagers as the actors.

The performance began with the third act of “Les Plaideurs,” played with extraordinary entrain. There were roars of laughter all through the salle, or tent none more amused than the band of schoolboys, and their youthful enjoyment was quite contagious. People turned to look at them, and it was evident that, if they didn’t see, they heard, as they never missed a point probably knew it all by heart. Then came a recitation by Mlle. Moreno, who looked and spoke like a tragic muse the remorse and suffering of Phedre. The end of the performance the two last acts of Berenice was enchanting. Mme. Bartet looked charming in her floating blue draperies, and was the incarnation of the resigned, poetic, loving woman; Paul Mounet was a grand, sombre, passionate Titus, torn between his love for the beautiful Queen and his duty as a Roman to choose only one of his own people to share his throne and honours. The Roman Senate was an all-powerful body, and a woman’s love too slight a thing to oppose to it. Bartet was charming all through, either in her long plaintes to her Confidante, where one felt that in spite of her repeated assurances of her lover’s tenderness there was always the doubt of the Emperor’s faith or in her interviews with Titus reproaching him and adoring him, with all the magic of her voice and smile. It was a triumph for them both, and their splendid talent. With no decor, no room, no scenic illusions of any kind, they held their audience enthralled. No one minded the heat, nor the crowd, nor the uncomfortable seats, and all were sorry when the well-known lines, said by Mme. Bartet, in her beautiful, clear, pathetic voice

“Servons tous trois d’exemple a l’Univers
De l’amour la plus tendre et la plus malheureuse
Dont il puisse garder l’histoire douloureuse,”

brought to a close the fierce struggle between love and ambition.

As soon as it was over, I went with Sebline to compliment the actors. We found Bartet, not in her dressing-room, but standing outside, still in her costume, very busy photographing Mounet, superb as a Roman Emperor. He was posing most impatiently, watching the sun slowly sinking behind the ruins, as he wanted to photograph Berenice before the light failed, and the time was short. They were surrounded by an admiring crowd, the children much interested in the “beautiful lady with the stars all over her dress.” We waited a few moments, and had a little talk with them. They said the fête had interested them very much and they were very glad to have come. They were rather taken aback at first when they saw the tent, the low small stage, and the very elementary scenery were afraid the want of space would bother them, but they soon felt that they held their audience, and that their voices carried perfectly. They were rather hurried, as they were all taking the train back to Paris, except Bartet, who had promised to stay for the banquet. I had half hoped she would come to me, but of course I was obliged to waive my claim. When I saw how much the Préfet and the official world held to having her when I heard afterwards that she had had the seat of honour next to the Bishop I was very glad I hadn’t insisted, as she certainly doesn’t often have the opportunity of sitting next to a Bishop. It seems he was delighted with her.

We loitered about some little time, talking to all our friends. The view from the terrace was beautiful directly at our feet the little town, which is literally two streets forming a long cross, the Grande Rue a streak of light and color, filled with people moving about, and the air alive with laughter and music. Just beyond, the long stretches of green pasture lands, cut every now and then by narrow lanes with apple trees and hawthorn in flower, and the canal winding along between the green walls of poplars the whole hemmed in by the dark blue line of the Villers-Cotteret forest, which makes a grand sweep on the horizon.

It was lovely driving back to Mareuil, toward the bright sunset clouds. We had a gay dinner and evening. I never dared ask where the various men dressed who came to dinner. The house is not very large, and every room was occupied but as they all appeared most correctly attired, I suppose there are resources in the way of lingerie and fumoir which are available at such times, and Francis’s valet de chambre is so accustomed to having more people than the house can hold that he probably took his precautions. Francis started off for the banquet at the Sauvage in his voiturette, but that long-suffering vehicle having made hundreds of kilometres these last days, came to grief at the foot of “la Montagne de Marolles,” and he was towed back by a friendly carter and arrived much disgusted when we were half through dinner.

We heard all the details of the dinner from the Abbe Marechal. Certainly the banqueting hall of the Sauvage will not soon again see such a brilliant assembly. Madame Bartet was the Queen of the Fête, and sat between the Bishop and the Préfet. There were some pretty speeches from M. Henri Houssaye, M. Roujon and of course the toast of the President accompanied by the Marseillaise.

The departure to the train was most amusing all the swells, including Bartet, walking in the cortege, escorted by a torch-light procession, and surrounded by the entire population of La Ferte.

The Grande Rue was illuminated from one end to the other, red Bengal lights throwing out splendidly the grand old chateau and the towers of Notre Dame.