( Originally Published 1926 )
The sun was already beginning to set as we turned our backs on Blois and commenced our journey over the bare plateau which bounds the Loire valley to the north. Flat as a desert, flat as the ocean on a calm day, one can see on every side for miles and miles, for there is scarcely a bush or a tree, and the road goes on and on and on, endlessly, wearisomely. Even the most desolate country generally has its moment of beauty when the sun is sinking below the horizon. But there was nothing beautiful about this plain; it was hard, flat, unnatural.
For a time I wondered vaguely at the effect, then suddenly it occurred to me that there were no shadows; save for the faintness of the light it might have been midday. I suppose it was merely that there was nothing to cast a shadow, but it gave a very weird effect, and one not altogether pleasant when one recalled the history of 1870.
" 1 don't think we shall find anything here," said' I. " The plain seems to go on for ever and ever. I wish we had not come." The road, however, was good, and we raced along at such a pace that it was still light enough to find our way when we entered Chateaudun.
A large square Place, dimly lighted, and in the centre a monumental fountain. At one corner an old-fashioned inn, which improved on acquaintance. And still I wished we had not come, for I was tired, and, to tell the truth, almost satiated with the glories of the Loire. It had begun to rain, a fine drizzling rain, but it was not cold, and after dinner we sat with the windows open, while I wrote my notes of the day's doings. Suddenly there arose, on the farther side of the Place, a wailing chant, a sound so weird and melancholy that it froze one's very heart.
" What is it? " I whispered to the waiter, who had just brought in the coffee. " What is it? "
" They are practising the music for the 18th of October," answered the man.
" The 18th of October? But—but why the 18th? "
The man looked at me as if unable to believe his ears.
" But, Madame," said he solemnly, " because it is the Day of the Defence."
" Ah yes, of course, I had forgotten. That, I suppose, is why you call this La Place du 18 October? "
" Precisement, Madame."
" And the hotel was standing then? "
" Madame, it was all as you see. Nothing has changed, save that le patron was then young and active."
I pricked up my ears.
" The patron? He was present at The Defence? "
" Mais, oui, Madame," with conscious pride. " I should have assisted myself had I been born"
" Do you think the patron would tell me about it?"
" Madame, he will be ravished. It is his great pleasure to speak of those days. I will call him."
A moment later the door opened, and into the dimly lighted room came an elderly man, with the dignity of a soldier, and the self-assurance of one who had a good story and knew how to tell it.
" Monsieur le Patron? " He bowed, and seating himself opposite the window, looked out meditatively into the night.
The lamplight was behind him, like the fire and glory of that past he was trying to recall, and his face was already shadowed by the night which was beginning to close down upon him. And so we sat a while in silence, listening to the rise and fall of that moaning dirge-like music; and all the time the slow heavy drops fell one by one from the roof like tears.
" We had been warned that the Germans had taken Orleans," said he at last; " we ought to have been prepared, but one always hopes for the best; and although we had seen the glow of the flames of Varize and Avny, we thought we might escape. Defence? But le Conseil Municipal had decided that the town should not be defended—no walls, no garrison, no artillery, it was impossible; they considered it contrary to their duty to expose it to pillage and fire. Grand Dieu I but we defended it all the same." His quiet voice had a ring of pride about it. " The Germans may say what they please, they had over twelve thousand troops; they came settling down like crows all over the plateau beyond the railway. Six batteries there were, six batteries, all directed on one defenceless town! Ah, they made a noise, I assure you. The shells burst everywhere—in the Church of the Madeleine, the castle, even in the hospital among the wounded. For us, we had a few franc-tireurs and national guards, perhaps five hundred in all, and for the rest there were the citizens. As I have said, no guns, no cavalry, but good barricades, and plenty of garden walls from behind which to shoot, and moreover, every house was a fortress. But one cannot fight eternally against such odds. Already the greater number of the franc-tireurs had been withdrawn by the commander Lipowski, who saw that all was over, and had made off by the Route de Brou. The Germans were in the town, the defence had re-treated to the eastward."
The old man was sitting forward, gazing out into the night, as though the scene were once more being enacted before him. I followed his eyes, and this is what t saw, or fancied I saw.
The Place was dark no longer, but glowing with a red shifting light. At the farther end, away on the left, a little group was standing at bay, a few rough-looking irregular soldiers in shirts and dark blue trousers, backed by a desperate throng of citizens, old men, boys, even a girl or two. Suddenly, down the street at the side of the hotel, came a shouting and tramping of many feet sound of wild running, shooting; and into the square poured the hosts of the Germans. Soon our end of the Place was full of them, while at the opposite side waited that little band, and between them was the fountain. Then the shooting recommenced, deadly shooting at such close quarters. And all the while some frantic souls at the back were shouting the " Marseillaise," answered from time to time by a heavy echo of " Die Wacht am Rhein." Shooting, singing, and the flames of burning houses, for the Germans had fired each house as they had taken it.
Soon behind me I seemed to hear German voices, and found the hotel invaded. I heard them demanding food, champagne, and a feast begins.
" Fine thing to see a town in flames," said one officer. " That is what ought to be done to the whole of France, men, women, and children—get rid of them all, say I."
I looked out again on the Place. The firing had ceased—the wild singing had died away. Silence, save for the sound of heavy footsteps, moaning cries, and the crackling and roaring of the flames, roused to madness by the wind which was blowing over,. the plateau. Then that too ceased, the darkness fell, and I heard once more the drip, drip of the rain. The patron was sitting forward, peering eagerly out of the window, and there was a new light in his old eyes.
" Thank you," said I presently; " I shall never forget the siege of Chateaudun."
The old man turned quickly.
" Nor will the Germans," said he, with a chuckle. " I suppose they lost a good many? "
" There were a few moments when the ground here was covered with corpses, and they were not mostly French, I assure you. It was said at the time that 1800 Germans fell.;'
" And the French? "
" Assez! But there were not so many to fall."
It is morning. We have crossed the Place, stepping lightly as one does in a cemetery, and by the Rue de Luynes have made our way to the Castle of Dunois. High above the walls I can see the pointed roof of the old keep of Thibaut le Tricheur. You remember Thibaut le Vieux, or the Trickster, the terrible Count of Blois. I believe it is really he whom the peasants mean when they talk of the Black Huntsman who haunts the woods round Chambord. A terrible man was Thibaut—" plein d'engin et plein fu de feintic," as the old chronicle says. He spent much of his time ravaging Normandy, advancing to the very walls of Rouen; and so fearful was the devastation of the country, that it is said there was not the bark of a single dog to be heard in the province. And this is his castle we are entering.
For some time I have been becoming conscious that I was mistaken in thinking that Chateaudun lies in the midst of the plateau. It is, on the contrary, perched at its very edge, just where the wall of supporting cliff falls to the valley of the River Loft. Here Thibaut built his fortress and made his home. It was well provided with dungeons, which in those days was a great consideration; and it overlooked all his country, between Chartres, Blois, and Tours. So he lived there, and so splendid was it, in his day that it gained the name of Le Palais de Thibaut.
Some of the Thibauts who succeeded this old reprobate were very different men; one being surnamed Thibaut-le-Bon on account of the almost unheard-of goodness and charity he exercised with regard to his poor tenants. He died in the Holy Land, and even after his death his wife, Princess Alix, continued his good works. It was, however, he, I must confess, who roasted Sulpice of Chaumont over a slow fire in one of the dungeons below the great tower. Still, that was the manner of the times!
But it is as the home of the great Dunois, Jehan le Batard d'Orleans, the brother-in-arms of Jeanne d'Arc, that the castle is famous. It was given him by his half brother Charles, Duke of Orleans, in gratitude for the help Jehan had rendered him in setting him free from the English.
As you enter the courtyard you see at the farther end the building where he lived with his wife, Marie d'Harcourt. This was his great kitchen. You may yet see the spits on which the meat was roasted. And close by, quite handy for heating the irons, is the torture chamber—for torturing had not quite gone out of fashion in Dunois' days. Here, too, is the Salle d'Honneur, with the stag over the chimneypiece. And you may mount by the magnificent staircase, second only to the great staircase at Blois, to the upper rooms;, and look down from the old windows, over the river, to the ancient Church of Saint Jean.
The chapel of the castle, or rather the chapels, for there are two, one above another, are still quite wonderful, in spite of the profanations of the Germans in 1870. There you will find a little statue of Dunois, clothed in armour as he appeared at the siege of Orleans. There, too, you will see the private oratories of the Lords and Ladies, the old statue of Mary the Egyptian, robed in her hair, and one of Elizabeth of Hungary, carrying her basket of roses. More' than all, before the altar, you can descend into the little vault where once lay the Lords of Chateaudun, where the hearts of Le Batard d'Orleans and his wife were buried.
" There was, a much finer statue of Dunois on the gable up there," said the guardian, pointing; " but it was broken by one of the German shells in 1870."
" You don't seem to love the Germans any more than the English do? " said I.
" Less, Madame, much less! " exclaimed the man. " It is a pity we did not finish them off. But it would have cost too much."
On the way home we visited the Hotel de Ville, where we fell in with the Mayor, who very kindly showed us the great picture of the Defence of Chateaudun. It is a fine painting representing the last stand in the Place. There is our hotel! Running about among the French soldiers is a young girl, " Mademoiselle Laurentine Proust," as the Mayor explained, who all night hastened from post to post, carrying cartridges, and attending to the wounded and dying.
" Is she still living? " I asked.
" Yes," said the Mayor. " She lives close by. She married one of the bravest of the defenders."
" And you, Monsieur," I asked. " Were you present? "
" I fought at Coulmiers," said the Mayor. " I was fifteen."
" But that is very young for a soldier."
" Oh," he replied with a laugh, " we fought younger than that in 1870."
As we left the building he pointed out the decree of President Marechal MacMahon, authorising the town to carry the Cross of the Legion of Honour above its arms, and over the entrance the shield-bearing the three crescents with the cross on a field of blue.
We have reached the end of our allotted space, though not of our French castles. There are so many of them, the old Chateaux, scattered up and down France, each with its legend, its history,' its romance. In visiting them one meets, as one can never do in books, the great ones who once made these fortresses their homes. We know them, we talk to them, listen to them, learn to love, though sometimes, sad to relate, to hate them. As one stands looking down at the great empty hearths, or rests in a window seat of some turret chamber, they come back, the ghosts of the old dead, and whisper their stories once again in our ears. And as we listen we smile, or sigh, or weep, at the memory of those days whose like we shall never see again, for the Lure of the old French Chateaux is upon us, and we dwell once more in the past.