Read CHAPTER VIII - A CORNER OF NORMANDY of Chateau and Country Life in France, free online book, by Mary King Waddington, on ReadCentral.com.

BAGNOLES DE L’ORNE, July-August.

It is lovely looking out of my window this morning, so green and cool and quiet. I had my petit dejeuner on my balcony, a big tree in the garden making perfect shade and a wealth of green wood and meadow in every direction, so resting to the eyes after the Paris asphalt. It seems a very quiet little place. Scarcely anything passing a big omnibus going, I suppose, to the baths, and a butcher’s cart. For the last ten minutes I have been watching a nice-looking sunburned girl with a big straw hat tied down over her ears, who is vainly endeavouring to get her small donkey-cart, piled high with fruit and vegetables, up a slight incline to the gate of a villa just opposite. She has been struggling for some time, pulling, talking, and red with the exertion. One or two workmen have come to her assistance, but they can’t do anything either. The donkey’s mind is made up. There is an animated conversation I am too high up to hear what they say. Finally she leaves her cart, ties up her fruit in her apron, balances a basket of eggs with one hand on her head, and disappears into the garden behind the gate. No one comes along and the cart is quite unmolested. I think I should have gone down myself if I had seen anyone making off with any of the fruit. It is a delightful change from the hot stuffy August Paris I left yesterday. My street is absolutely deserted, every house closed except mine, the sun shining down hard on the white pavement, and perfect stillness all day. The evenings from seven till ten are indescribable a horror of musical concierges with accordions, a favorite French instrument. They all sit outside their doors with their families and friends, playing and singing all the popular songs, and at intervals all joining in a loud chorus of “Viens Poupoule.” Grooms are teaching lady friends to ride bicycles, a lot of barking, yapping fox-terriers running alongside. There is a lively cross-conversation going on from one side of the street to the other, my own concierge and chauffeur contributing largely. Of course my balcony is untenable, and I am obliged to sit inside, until happily sleep descends upon them. They all vanish, and the street relapses into perfect silence. I am delighted to find myself in this quiet little Norman bathing-place, just getting known to the French and foreign public.

It is hardly a village; the collection of villas, small houses, shops, and two enormous hotels surrounding the établissement seems to have sprung up quite suddenly and casually in the midst of the green fields and woods, shut in on all sides almost by the Forest of Ardennes, which makes a beautiful curtain of verdure. There are villas dotted about everywhere, of every possible style; Norman chalets, white and gray, with the black crossbeams that one is so familiar with all over this part of the country; English cottages with verandas and bow-windows; three or four rather pretentious looking buildings with high perrons and one or two terraces; gardens with no very pretty flowers, principally red geraniums, some standing back in a nice little green wood, some directly on the road with benches along the fence so that the inhabitants can see the passers-by (and get all the dust of the roads). But there isn’t much passing even in these days of automobiles. There are two trains from Paris, arriving at two in the afternoon and at eleven at night. The run down from Paris, especially after Dreux, is charming, almost like driving through a park. The meadows are beautifully green and the trees very fine the whole country very like England in appearance, recalling it all the time, particularly when we saw pretty gray old farmhouses in the distance and every now and then a fine Norman steeple.

There are two rival hotels and various small pensions and family houses. We are staying at the Grand, which is very comfortable. There is a splendid terrace overlooking the lake; rather an ambitious name for the big pond, which does, however, add to the picturesqueness of the place, particularly at night, when all the lights are reflected in the water. The whole hotel adjourns there after dinner, and people walk up and down and listen to the music until ten o’clock. After that there is a decided falling off of the beau monde. Many people take their bath at half past five in the morning and are quite ready to go to bed early. The walk down in the early morning is charming, through a broad, shaded alley Allee de Dante. I wonder why it is called that. I don’t suppose the poet ever took warm baths or douches in any description of établissement. I remember the tale we were always told when we were children, and rebelled against the perpetual cleansing and washing that went on in the nursery, of the Italian countess who said she would be ashamed, if she couldn’t do all her washing in a glass of water. It is rather amusing to see all the types. I don’t think there are many foreigners. I hear very little English spoken, though they tell me there are some English here. We certainly don’t look our best in the early morning, but the women stand the test better than the men. With big hats, veils, and the long cloaks they wear now, they pass muster very well and don’t really look any worse than when they are attired for a spin in an open auto; but the men, with no waistcoats, a foulard around their throats, and a very dejected air, don’t have at all the conquering-hero appearance that one likes to see in the stronger sex.

The établissement is large and fairly good, but nothing like what one finds in all the Austrian and German baths. When I first go in, coming out of the fresh morning air, I am rather oppressed with the smell of hot air, damp clothing, and many people crowded into little hot bath-rooms. There are terrible little dark closets called cabinets de repos. Many doctors in white waistcoats and red ribbons are walking about; plenty of baigneuses, with their sleeves rolled up, showing a red arm that evidently has been constantly in the water; people who have had their baths and are resting, wrapped up in blankets, stretched out on long chairs near the windows; bells going all the time, cries of “Marie-Louise,” “Jeanne,” “Anne-Marie.” It is rather a pandemonium. Our baigneuse, who is called Marie-Louise, is upstairs. At the top of the stairs there is a grand picture of the horse who discovered the Bagnoles waters, a beautiful white beast standing in a spring, all water lilies and sparkling water. A lovely young lady in a transparent green garment with roses over each ear, like the head-dress one sees on Japanese women, is holding his bridle. The legend says that a certain gallant and amorous knight of yore, having become old and crippled with rheumatism, and unable any longer to make a brave show in tournaments under fair ladies’ eyes, determined to retire from the world, and to leave his horse faithful companion of many jousts in a certain green meadow traversed by a babbling brook, where he could end his days in peace. What was his surprise, some months later, to find his horse quietly standing again in his old stable, his legs firm and straight, his skin glossy, quite renovated. The master took himself off to the meadow, investigated the quality of the water, bathed himself, and began life anew with straightened limbs and quickened pulses. The waters certainly do wonders. We see every day people who had arrived on crutches or walking with canes quite discarding them after a course of baths.

The hotel is full, mostly French, but there are of course some exceptions. We have a tall and stately royal princess with two daughters and a niece. The girls are charming simple, pretty, and evidently much pleased to be away for a little while from court life and etiquette. They make their cure quite regularly, like any one else, walking and sitting in the Allee Dante. The people don’t stare at them too much. There are one or two well-known men deputies, membres de l’Institut but, of course, women are in the majority. There is a band not very good, as the performers, some of them good enough alone, had never played together until they came here. However, it isn’t of much consequence, as no one listens. I make friends with them, as usual; something always draws me to artists. The boy at the piano looks so thin really as if he did not get enough to eat. He plays very well, told me he was a premier prix of the Conservatoire de Madrid. When one thinks of the hours of work and fatigue that means, it is rather pathetic to see him, contented to earn a few francs a night, pounding away at a piano and generally ending with a “cake walk,” danced by some enterprising young people with all sorts of remarkable steps and gestures, which would certainly astonish the original negro performers on a plantation.

The view from the terrace at night is pretty quantities of lights twinkling about among the trees, and beyond, always on each side and in front, the thick green walls of the forest quite shutting in the quiet little place. We are usually the last outside. It grows cooler as the evening gets on, and I fancy it is not wise to sit out too late after the hot bath and fatigue of the day.

It is a splendid automobiling country, and every afternoon there is a goodly show of motors of all sizes and makes waiting to take their owners on some of the many interesting excursions which abound in this neighbourhood. We have an English friend who has brought over his automobile, a capital one English make and we have been out several times with him. The other day we went to Domfront a lovely road, almost all the way through woods, the forest of Audaine with its fine old trees making splendid shade. We passed through the Etoile well known to all the hunting men, as it is a favourite rendezvous de châsse. It is a lovely part of the forest, a great green space with alleys running off into the woods in all directions. Some of them, where the ground was a little hilly, looked like beautiful green paths going straight up to the clouds.

We kept in the forest almost all the way as we got near Domfront the road rising all the time, quite steep at the end, which, however, made no perceptible difference in our speed. The big auto galloped up all the hills quite smoothly and with no effort. It was a divine view as we finally emerged from the woods miles of beautiful green meadows and hedges stretching away on each side and a blue line of hills in the distance. We had been told that we could see Mont St. Michel and the sea with our glasses, but we didn’t, though the day was very clear. Domfront is a very old walled town, with round towers and a great square donjon, perched on the top of a mountain. A long stretch of solid wall is still there, and some of the old towers are converted into modern dwellings. It looked out of place to see ordinary lace curtains tied back with a ribbon and pots of red geraniums in the high narrow windows, when one thought of the rough grim soldiers armed to the teeth who have stood for hours in those same windows watching anxiously for the first glimpse of an armed band appearing at the edge of the meadows. The chateau must have been a fine feudal fortress in its time and has sheltered many great personages. William the Conqueror, of course he has apparently lived in every chateau and sailed from every harbour in this part of Normandy Charles IX, Catherine de Medicis, and the Montgomery who killed Henri II in tournament.

It was too early to go home, so we went on to the Chateau de Lassay. We raced through pretty little clean gray villages, looking peaceful and sleepy and deserted and evidently quite accustomed to automobiles. No one took much notice of us. There were only a few old people and children in the streets; all the men were working in the fields gathering in their harvest. Lassay is quite a place, with hotels, shops, churches, and an old Benedictine convent. We left the auto in the square, as it couldn’t get up the narrow, steep little road to the hotel. There were swarms of beggars of all ages old women, girls, children lining the road before we got to the chateau. Monsieur B. (deputy), who was with us, remonstrated vigorously, particularly with stout, sturdy young women who were pursuing us, but they didn’t care a bit, and we only got rid of them once we had crossed the moat and drawbridge and got into the court-yard, where a wrinkled and red-cheeked old woman locked the door after us. The chateau is almost entirely in ruins, but must have been splendid. There is a sort of modern dwelling-house in the inner court, but I fancy the proprietor rarely lives there. It is enormous. There are eight massive round towers connected by a courtine (little green path) that runs along the top of the ramparts. The big door that opens on the park is modern, and makes decidedly poor effect after the fine old pointed doorway that gives access to the great court-yard. The park, with a little care and a little money spent on it, would be beautiful, but it is quite wild and uncared for. There are splendid old trees, some of them covered entirely with ivy growing straight up into the branches and giving a most peculiar effect to the trees; ragged green paths leading to woods; running waters with little bridges thrown over them; a splendid vegetation everywhere, almost a jungle in some places all utterly neglected. The old woman took us through the “casemates” dark stone galleries with little narrow slits for windows or to fire through; they used to run all around the house, connected by a subterranean passage, but they are now, like all the rest, half in ruins. It was most interesting. We had not the energy, any of us, to go up into the tower and see the view we had seen it all the way, culminating at Domfront on the top of the mountain, and though very beautiful, it is always the same great stretches of green fields, hedges, and fine trees. It is a little too peaceful and monotonous for my taste. I like something bolder and wilder. A high granite cliff standing out in the sea, with the great Atlantic rollers breaking perpetually against it, appeals to me much more than green fields and cows standing placidly in little clear brooks, and clean, comfortable farmhouses, with pretty gray Norman steeples rising out of the woods, but my companions were certainly not of my opinion and were enchanted with the Norman landscape. We had a long ride back in the soft evening light. I am afraid to say how many kilometres we went in the three hours we were away.

It has been warm these last days. There is a bit of road absolutely without shade of any kind we have to pass every time we go to the établissement, which is very trying. I love the early morning walk, everything is so fresh and the air singularly light and pure. It seems wicked to go into that atmosphere of hot air and suffering humanity, which greets one on the threshold of the bathhouse. To-day I have been driving with the princess. She does not like the automobile when she is making a cure says it shakes her too much.

We had a pretty drive, past the chateau of Couterne, which is most picturesque. A beautiful beech avenue leads up to the house, which is built of brick, with round towers and a large pond or lake which comes right up to the walls. It is of the sixteenth century, and has been inhabited ever since by the same family. One of the ancestors was “chevalier et poète” of Queen Marguerite of Navarre. I had a nice talk with the princess about everything and everybody. I asked her if she had ever read “The Lightning Conductor.” As her own auto is a Napier, I thought it would interest her. I told her all the potins (little gossip) of the hotel that people said her youngest daughter was going to marry the King of Spain, and the general verdict was that the princess would make “a beautiful queen.” Every one is horror-struck at the murder of the Russian Minister of the Interior, and I suppose it is only a beginning.

This afternoon I have been walking in the lovely woods at the back of the établissement. It is rather a steep climb to get to the point de vue and troublesome walking, as the paths are dry and slippery and the roots of the pine-trees that spread out over the paths catch one’s heels sometimes. Some people spend all their day high up in the pines take up books, seats, work, and goûter, and only come down after six, when the air gets cooler. We saw parties seated about in all directions and had glimpses of the white dresses, which are a uniform this year, flitting through the trees. It was very pretty, but not like the walls of Marienbad, with the splendid black pine forest all around and every now and then a glimpse of a green Alm (high field on the top of a mountain), with the peasant girl in her high Tyrolean hat and clean white chemisette standing on the edge, with her cows all behind her and the bells tinkling in the distance.

It was so warm this evening that we sat out until ten o’clock. We had a visit from Comte de G., son-in-law of our friend Mrs. L.S. He lives at Deauville, and had announced himself for Monday morning for breakfast at twelve. He did come for breakfast, but on Tuesday morning, having been en route since Monday morning at seven o’clock. He was in an automobile and everything happened to him that can happen to an automobile except an absolute smash. He punctured his tires, had a big hole in his reservoir, his steering gear bent, his bougies always doing something they oughtn’t to. He dined and slept at Falaise; rather a sketchy repast, but as he told us he could always get along with poached eggs, could eat six in an ordinary way and twelve in an emergency, we were reassured; for one can always get eggs and milk in Normandy. He arrived in a perfectly good humour and made himself very pleasant. He is an old soldier a cavalry officer and doesn’t mind roughing it.

The journey from Deauville to Bagnoles is usually accomplished in three or four hours. Falaise, the birthplace of William the Conqueror, is an interesting old town, but looks as if it had been asleep ever since that great event. The old castle is very fine, stands high, close to the edge of the cliff, so that the rock seems to form part of the great walls. There is one fine round tower, and always the grass walk around the ramparts.

The views are beautiful. Looking down from one of the narrow, pointed windows, still fairly preserved, we had the classic Norman landscape at our feet beautiful green fields, enormous trees making spots of black shade in the bright grass, the river, sparkling in the sunshine, winding through the meadows, a group of washerwomen, busy and chattering, beating their clothes on the flat stones where the river narrows a little under the castle walls, and a bright blue sky overhead.

We walked through the Grande Place picturesque enough. On one side the Church of La Trinité, and in the middle of the Place the bronze equestrian statue of William the Conqueror. It is very spirited. He is in full armor, lance in hand, his horse plunging forward toward imaginary enemies. They say the figure was copied from Queen Mathilde’s famous tapestries at Bayeux, but it looked more modern to me. I remember all the men and beasts and ships of those tapestries looked most extraordinary as to shape. Monsieur R. took over the young princesses the other day in his auto. They were very keen to see the cradle of their race. It was curious to see the descendants of the great rough soldier starting in an auto, fresh, pretty English girls, dressed in the trotteuses (little short skirts) that we all wear in the country, carrying their Kodaks and sketching materials.

All this part of the country teems with legends of the great warrior. Years ago, when we were at Deauville, we drove over to Dives to breakfast one gets a very good breakfast at the little hotel. We wandered about afterward down to the sea (William the Conqueror is said to have sailed from Dives), and into the little church where the names of all the barons who accompanied him to England are written on tablets on the walls. We saw various relics and places associated with him and talked naturally a great deal about the Conqueror. On the way home (we were a large party in a brake) one of our compatriots, a nice young fellow whose early education had evidently not been very comprehensive, turned to me, saying; “Do tell me, what did that fellow conquer?” I could hardly believe my own ears, but unfortunately for him, just at that moment we were walking up a steep hill and everybody in the carriage overheard his remark. It was received with such shouts of laughter that any explanation was difficult, and one may imagine the jokes, and the numerous and fabulous conquests that were instantly put down to the great duke’s account. The poor fellow was quite bewildered. However, I don’t know if an American is bound to know any history but that of his own country. I am quite sure that many people in the carriage didn’t know whom Pocahontas married, nor what part she played in the early days of America. But it was funny all the same.

We have been out again this afternoon in Monsieur R.’s auto a charming turn. We started out by the Etoile, as Monsieur R. wanted to show it to some gentlemen who were with us. The drive, if anything, was more lovely than the first time, the slanting rays of the sun were so beautiful shining through the rich green foliage, making patterns upon the hard, white road. We raced all over the country, through countless little villages, all exactly alike, sometimes flying past a stately old brick chateau just seen at the end of a long, beech avenue, sometimes past an old church standing high, its gray stone steeple showing well against the bright, cloudless sky, and a little graveyard stretching along the hillside, the roads bordered on each side with high green banks and hedges, the orchards full of apple-trees, and the whole active population of the village in the fields. It is a beautiful month to be in Normandy, for one must have sun in these parts. As soon as it rains everything is gray and cold and melancholy, the forest looks like a great high black wall, the meadows are shrouded in mist, and the damp strikes through one. Now it is smiling, sunny, peaceful.

We have frightened various horses to-day; a quiet old gray steed, driven by two old ladies in black bonnets. They were too old to get out, and were driving their horse timidly and nervously into the ditch in their anxiety to give us all the road. However, we slowed up and the horse didn’t look as if he could run away. Two big carthorses, too, at the end of a long line, dragging a heavy wagon, turned short round and almost ran into us; also a very small donkey, driven by a little brown girl, showed symptoms of flight. I don’t know the names of half the villages we passed through. Near Bagnoles we came to La Ferte-Mace, which looks quite imposing as one comes down upon it from the top of a long hill. The church makes a great effect looks almost like a cathedral. Bagnoles looked very animated as we came back. People were loitering about shopping quite a number of carriages and autos before the door of the Grand Hotel, and people sitting out under the trees in the gardens of the different villas. It was decidedly cool at the end of our outing; I was glad to have my coat.

This morning after breakfast, in the big hall, where every one congregates for coffee, we had a little political talk not very satisfactory. Everybody is discontented and everybody protests, but no one seems able to stop the radical current. The rupture with the Vatican has come at last, and I think might have been avoided if they had been a little more patient in Rome. There will be all sorts of complications and bitter feeling, and I don’t quite see what benefit the country at large will get from the present state of things. A general feeling of irritation and uncertainty, higher taxes for they must build school-houses and pay lay-teachers and country cures. A whole generation of children cannot be allowed to grow up without religious instruction of any kind. I can understand how the association of certain religious orders (men) could be mischievous harmful even but I am quite sure that no one in his heart believes any harm of the women soeurs de charité and teachers who occupy themselves with the old people, the sick, and the children. In our little town they have sent away an old sister who had taught and generally looked after three generations of children. When she was expelled she had been fifty years in the town and was teaching the grandchildren of her first scholars. Everybody knew her, everybody loved her; when any one was ill or in trouble she was always the first person sent for. Now there is at the school an intelligent, well-educated young laïque with all the necessary brevets. I dare say she will teach the children very well, but her task ends with the close of her class. She doesn’t go to church, doesn’t know the people, doesn’t interest herself in all their little affairs, and will never have the position and the influence the old religieuse had.

I am sorry to go away from this quiet little green corner of Normandy, but we have taken the requisite number of baths. Every one rushes off as soon as the last bath (twenty-first generally) is taken. Countess F. took her twenty-first at six o’clock this morning, and left at ten.