( Originally Published 1926 )
Of all the royal residences of France, and truly their name is legion, not one can rival in charm Fontainebleau. I should . loathe living in a palace, but I think even I could make myself happy in the Pavillon d'Angle, looking down over the Etang des Carpes. It would need some alterations, of course. There are too many secret passages and back stairs, and I myself am not partial to Judas windows—they spoil one's sense of privacy. It would want refurnishing, some good warm Turkey carpets and heavy curtains, a few screens, lounge chairs, and one or two comfortable shabby old couches. We should need books too, and a thousand little homely trifles to which we have grown accustomed. For Fontainebleau reminds one of those days when kings sent on their furniture before them, as advance luggage, when travelling from house to house. I remember reading of Anne of Austria's arrival at one of the royal palaces—Saint-Germain, I think. She had been obliged to leave Paris at a moment's notice, owing to the civil war of La Fronde, and, when she arrived at her destination, found that her rooms were unfurnished. " The King," says Madame de Motteville, " as well as the Queen and all the Court, were without beds, furniture, linen, or any of the necessaries of every-day life. The Queen herself had to sleep in a little bed which Cardinal Mazarin had, in view of such a possibility, caused to be sent on from Paris some days before. There were also two small camp beds for the King and his brother, but as for Madame d'Orleans and la Grande Mademoiselle, they had to sleep on straw, and every one else was in a like predicament."
There is a very curious atmosphere about Fontainebleau. In spite of its splendour, it has retained its hunting lodge character, and there is a suggestion of Bohemianism, so to speak, about it, which is peculiarly comforting after the cold majesty of Versailles. Probably even kings felt this, for it was always a holiday resort, a place where those of them who were so constituted that they could lay aside Court etiquette, did so for a while, and enjoyed themselves like ordinary mortals.
It was late when we saw, lying over the horizon, the dark cloak which we knew to be the Forest of Fontainebleau, and it was not long before we found ourselves among the shifting shadows and purple tree-trunks of the haunted wood. Long slanting beams of light still fell upon the reddening bracken, and indescribable thoughts possessed me as my gaze wandered away among the fairy depths and vistas. It was my 'first visit to Fontainebleau, and I had been steeping myself in the memoirs of Court favourites.
We left the automobile beside La Croix du Grand Veneur, named after the wild huntsman, whose phantom appeared at these cross roads to Henry of Navarre, and plunged into the forest.
The air was full of the rustling of leaves and the humming of invisible wings. On every side the woods hemmed just round, with a dense, impenetrable padding of silence. Yet the whole place seemed quivering and alert. I don't think I have ever before so entirely understood the meaning of the word haunted, as I did in this Forest of Fontainebleau. Alone? Why, almost every King of France was there, from Robert the Pious, and good Saint Louis, who built the hospital to salve his conscience for having enlarged his castle, to the kings who had no consciences to salve. Gliding silently over the soft carpet of moss, they came crowding in upon us, thick. and fast. And not kings alone. Here is Isabella of France, wife of our Edward II., come to seek her brother Charles to complain to him about her wretched husband. Beside one of these trees, just where his horse has thrown him, Philippe le Bel lies dying.
Hark! Is that a horn? Surely it is Francis I. with his beautiful Duchesse d'Etampes, Francis, who turned the gloomy old feudal castle of Philip Augustus into a fairy palace of delights for him-self and his Court. These silent woods have often resounded to the laughter of his Flying Squadron, in which all the beauties of the time found place. For Francis, like all his race, was bent on having plenty of ladies about him.
" A Court without ladies," he used to say, " is a year without spring, or a spring without roses."
Henry of Navarre, too, how fond he was of these woods! It was here that he and Gabrielle d'Estrees used to roam. And there was his son Louis, and his son's son Louis. Ah, there were naughty doings when the young King Louis XIV. used to ramble about in the forest with his sister-in-law, Madame d'Orleans, till two and three o'clock in the morning! Poor Anne, his mother, was dreadfully shocked at his unseemly behaviour.
One meets Madame d'Orleans at every turn. As some one has said, she was the very Queen of Fontainebleau! Louis had not cared about her before her marriage; he had found her too thin, too young. But when she appeared at the wood-land Court as his brother's wife, he discovered that he had been mistaken, that she was, in fact, the most fascinating woman in the world—that is to say, the world of that particular summer! Presently we overtake the lovely Henriette riding homewards. She has been bathing with her ladies. What a gay cavalcade they make, with their fluttering plumes and fair ringlets! Bah! They are only ghosts, like the rest! The air is full of them here at Fontainebleau.
Suddenly we come upon the little town. One minute we are in the forest, the next threading our way, with much barking of dogs, through the narrow streets toward the Place.
I don't know why we had set our minds upon the Hotel d'Armagnac, but it was a happy inspiration which prompted us. It is a delicious little place, with an atmosphere well according with the old-world spirit of the palace. All day one wanders about the royal gardens and galleries, to return at evening to the pleasant leafy courtyard of the hostel, and, as you sit and write out your notes, you watch the cook in his copper-hung kitchen preparing the dinner. Sometimes one of the dear old ladies, of whom there are several belonging to the Armagnac, will bring a great basket of radishes, and as she sits and trims them, will give her opinion of the doings that went on at Fontainebleau before the Revolution—opinions which form a striking sequel to the memoirs of the various Court ladies to whom I have referred.
Next morning was bright and sunny. Outside our room was a little terrace, overlooking the courtyard, and there we breakfasted, I in my dressing-gown and slippers, and my husband in corresponding deshabille. Several people we had met the night before bowed to us from the open windows before which they were dressing, but no one seemed in the least surprised or embarrassed. It was Fontainebleau—one may still do anything at Fontainebleau. Do you remember Madame de Motteville's story of how, one hot summer, the Court used to go bathing in the Seine, dressed in long grey cloth chemises, so that " la modestie n'y etoit nullement blessee! " For hours together they would disport themselves on the banks of the river, in this light and airy costume, and then, when the heat of the day was over, saunter back through the forest to dress for the evening.
The palace is best approached by way of the gardens, it is thus that we gain a true idea of the Fontainebleau of Francis I. and Henry of Navarre. It has been enlarged and altered considerably since their days, but so much remains that we seem to see the magnificent " Salamander " leaning over the balustrade, with the Duchesse d'Etampes by his side, feeding the carp, with which he has stocked this lake of his. Somewhere in the gardens is, or was until lately, the Grotte des Pins, with its satyr-guarded entrance, where the Princess Madeleine was bathing, while James V. of Scotland ensconced himself behind one of the little peep-holes with which these baths were fitted, and watched her. Poor little Madeleine! She hated the unmannerly Scotsman, as well she might, but her father Francis obliged her to marry him, and in 1537 she left this charming home for the cold and barren north, where, six months later, she died of a broken heart.
Let us enter the castle and wander through the galleries and gorgeous salons, and see where these great folk slept and ate, lived, loved, and quarrelled. There was a good deal of quarrelling, especially between Francis I. and his son Henry the Dauphin. Their respective lady-loves urged them on, for they hated each other like the poison which had just been introduced from Italy. Diane de Poitiers, Henry's mistress, had never forgiven the Duchess for declaring that she, herself, was born the year Madame Diane was married. It is really to Diane de Poitiers that Fontainebleau owes the most magnificent of its rooms—the gallery of Henri II. As we enter it, we seem to see the beautiful woman, in her long white widow's robes, her bare throat, and that matchless complexion, which was as perfect when she was sixty as that of any beauty of seventeen. Some-times she is with the King, sometimes with Charles de Bourbon, and occasionally she lingers in one of the window embrasures with the hand-some Bonnitet. For Madame Diane was more universal with her favours than her name warranted.
But here we are at the salon of Louis XIII., and a very strange scene rises before my mind as I enter. I see the great room once more a bed-chamber. The young Queen of Henry IV., Marie de Medicis, is lying there, and beside her is the old nurse holding a new-born baby. The King has just given the woman a spoonful of wine, which she puts from her own mouth into that of the child, just as we see a mother thrush do with a worm.
" Nurse! Nurse! " whispers the King eagerly " tell me, is it a son? "
" Yes," says the nurse.
" Ah, pray do not deceive me," begs Henry " or I shall die! "
And when at last he is convinced, " tears as large as peas " roll down his cheeks, and he says to the Queen: " Mon amie, you have suffered much, but God has given us what we begged for. See, we have a fair son! "
Then, running excitedly to the door, he flings it open, and bids all the courtiers enter, so that the room is thronged, and the nurse, fearing for her mistress, who has fainted, remonstrates.
" Hold thy. peace, good woman," says the King, " the child belongs to all the world, and all the world shall rejoice with me." So, taking the. baby in his arms, he holds him up before them all, and, drawing his sword from its scabbard, places it in the tiny hands, saying: " Use it my son, for the glory of God and the honour of France! "
It was while walking in the gardens of Fontainebleau, shortly after, that the Queen met Henriette d'Entragues, who also claimed to be Henry's wife, in right of that foolish paper he signed at Fontainebleau. She, likewise, was carrying her baby. The two women stopped and glared at one another.
" My dauphin is much handsomer than yours," asserted d'Entragues, offensively; and I daresay she spoke the truth, for Louis XIII. never was a beauty. However, no doubt, his mother thought differently, for next moment she had given the rival a stinging slap on the cheek, and turned haughtily away. It is a queer little bit of human nature to find in an old royal chateau!
In La Galerie des Cerfs, with its pictures of the great chateaux of France, we are confronted by quite a different scene. Very odd visitors some-times came to stay at Fontainebleau. Among them, in 1657, was Christina of Sweden, daughter of the celebrated Gustavus Adolphus. Nobody wanted her in France at all. Christina, on a previous occasion, had made herself a little too notorious even for those days. Louis, a law to himself, had no intention of other sovereigns setting a bad example to his Court, so Fontainebleau, being at the time vacant, she received a grudging permission to occupy it, and established herself there with her secretary, Monadelschi. Mademoiselle de Montpensier gives a very curious picture of the Bohemian life this strange Queen was living.
" I" found her surrounded by an infinity of people," says Mademoiselle, " so that she could scarcely advance two steps toward me. I had heard so much said of her extraordinary manner of dressing, that I almost died of fear lest I should laugh when I saw her. But she surprised me, and not in such a manner as to make me laugh. She wore a grey skirt with gold and silver lace, a jerkin of flame-coloured camelot, with lace to match the skirt, and at the neck, a kerchief of Point de Genes tied with flame-coloured ribbon. She had on a fair wig, with a roll at the back, like the women now wear, and she held in her hand a hat with black feathers. She is white, with blue eyes, and sometimes she looks gentle, sometimes very fierce. Her mouth is pleasant, though large, and she has fine teeth. Her nose is long and aquiline, and she is very small, her jerkin hiding her bad figure. Taking her altogether she made me think of a pretty little boy."
This strange person was evidently bent on entertaining Mademoiselle, and after asking an infinity of questions, and making several extremely outspoken remarks concerning various well-known people of the Court, took her guest to see a ballet, and afterwards a comedy, where she behaved in such a manner that Mademoiselle was quite scandalised.
" She swore by God, and lay back in her chair, throwing her legs from one side to the other, and putting them over the arms of her seat, in such attitudes as I have never seen used by any one, save Trivelin and Jodelet, who are both buffoons! "
Altogether, it must have been a very extra-ordinary evening, winding up with fireworks on the lake, which frightened poor Mademoiselle out of her senses, much to the amusement of the Queen of Sweden, who declared that the one wish of her life was to see a battle.
After this, no one went to call on Christina. I suspect that Mademoiselle, on her return to Court, made the most of her experiences. Perhaps it was on account of finding herself boycotted that the Queen quarrelled with her secretary, Monadelschi. She accused him of treason. . . . See, these are her rooms, opening off the gallery, where she had her interview with him! Madame de Motteville, who probably had the story from Pere Lebel, who shrived the wretched man, says that Monadelschi fell at the Queen's feet, begging for pardon. But Christina, crying out that he was a traitor, merely bade him confess to the priest, and went back to her apartment to order her captain of the guard to go and execute him. I think I should be afraid to walk down this gallery on a moonlit night; I might hear the cries of Monadelschi, as the captain hacked at him with his sword, or see Christina's contemptuous face, as she called him " coward," and jeered at his terror. Somewhere or other, on the polished floor, I might stumble over a mat, and think it was a dead body, with the blood still oozing from the gaping wound in its throat. And all the while, I should fancy I heard the brutal Queen laughing and chuckling to herself in the room hard by.
But there are not many such horrible stories told of Fontainebleau. For the most part, people seem to have gone there with the intention of enjoying themselves, and to have succeeded only too well. Louis XIV. always arrived in a carriage full of ladies, all in full evening dress. Shouldn't you like to have been on the horseshoe staircase when they emerged from the crowded vehicle, dusty and creased with the journey, yet smiling and gay, as courtiers must needs be, whatever their private feelings? Speaking of the staircase, reminds me of the reception of the little Princess Adelaide of Savoie, whom Louis XIV. went to bring home as a bride for his young grandson, the Duke of Burgundy. Saint Simon gives a most interesting account of the arrival of the King with the litttle girl, " who," he says, " looked small enough to have travelled in the King's pocket." Poor little thing, I wonder what she thought of the great state-room they gave her to sleep in. I daresay she cried after her father and mother—little brides often did in those days! But she had a charming young husband, and every one was as kind as possible to her, including her step-grandmother-in-law, the much-feared Madame de Maintenon, on whose lap she sat, calling her " Auntie."
There are many things I should like to mention about Fontainebleau. The great rooms are so easy to re-people—the council room, the salon of Louis XIII. Gaily-dressed courtiers seem once more to hasten up and down the galleries. Some-times there is a comedy, or even a tragedy, played in la Salle de la Belle Cheminee; or la Galerie Henri II. is lighted up with torches of pink wax, and turned into a ballroom. How gorgeous it must have been, with the light flickering on the rich mouldings and sculptures, showing the great paintings of gods and goddesses. The Swiss Guard, dressed in red and yellow uniforms, are drawn up on either side of the entrance, and the gay crowd of nobles; and Court beauties stand expectant. " The King, gentlemen! " cry the guards; and enter Henry and Catherine, followed by their young daughters, Elizabeth and Marguerite. Then what curtseying and bowing, what hand-kissing, smiling, and ogling! The parquet looks as though a flock of gay butterflies had settled down upon it.
And there is the ancient Chapel of Saint-Saturnin, consecrated by Thomas a Becket; and the Chapel of the Trinity, where, in 1725, Louis XV. was married to Marie Leczinska.
It is pleasant, too, to recall Marie Antoinette at Fontainebleau, to picture her in her great bed, with its hangings of embroidered Lyons silk; to peep into the mysteries of her boudoir, with its exquisite painted ceiling; and think of her kindness to the poor peasants of the neighbourhood. Her husband Louis, too, we can hear him at his locksmith's work in the attic he fitted up above his apartment. And this magnificent suite of rooms, with its Gobelin tapestries and painted ceilings? Ah, that is where Pope Pius VII. was lodged, both when he came to crown the Emperor Napoleon, and afterwards during his long imprisonment at Fontainebleau.
And this brings us to the last great shade which walks the galleries. I can see the short, stout form of Napoleon,
" With neck out-thrust, you fancy how, Legs wide, arms locked behind."
Up and down he goes, up and down, restless, like a lion in his cage. Below, round the Court of the White Horse, his guards are quartered. But save for them and the servants, he is alone. For days his generals have been deserting him. ,True, they have done it in the most gentlemanly way, making such excuses and apologies for leaving him as only a Frenchman can. But Napoleon knows very well that his .day is over, and smiles a little bitterly as he bids them farewell.
Up and down, up and down! What is he thinking of, this little man with the insignificant body and the godlike head? Is he reliving the days when he and Josephine used to pace together this gallery of Francis I.? Or have his thoughts wandered to the later time when he brought Marie Louise here, and showed her the pine gardens he had planted, to remind her of her Austrian forests?
Up and down, up and down! Presently he stops and enters a room, called to-day La Salle d'Abdication. In the middle is a little round table, its very plainness marking it out from the gorgeous surroundings. Not even his bedroom, with its splendid Louis XV. bedstead, and the cradle of his son the King of Rome, can rival in interest this ordinary little piece of furniture. You know something wonderful once lay upon it, or it would not be there. See, what is written on this paper?
" The Allied Powers, having declared the Emperor Napoleon to be the only obstacle to the re-establishment of peace in Europe, the Emperor, faithful to his oath, declares that he renounces for himself and his successors the thrones of France and Italy, and that there is no personal sacrifice, even that of his life, which he is not ready to make in the interests of France."
They say that, a few days after signing the abdication, he tried to poison himself with an overdose of opium, but was saved by the sickness it caused. And so up and down the long gallery he wanders once more; till one April morning, when Fontainebleau is looking its loveliest, when the trees are breaking into a thin green mist of leaves, and the ring-doves, billing and cooing, are making us wonder whether they are not the spirits of lovers of former days, the little great man stops suddenly, and orders his carriage. Then, with his head held high, and his mouth, that mouth we all know so well, set and firm, he goes out to the court of the White Horse. There stand the Guards, the old soldiers who have loved and followed him through all his strange, and sometime glorious career. Napoleon descends the great horseshoe staircase, and gathers the veterans around him.
" Soldiers," says he, " my old companions in arms, whom I have always found on the road to honour, the time has come for us to part. I might have stayed longer among you, but it is useless to lengthen the struggle. It might even lead to civil war, and I will not again tear the bosom of France. Be happy and enjoy your well-earned repose. As for me, I desire no pity. I still have a mission to perform, to make known to posterity the great things we have done together. I should like to embrace you all, but as that his impossible, this flag shall take your place."
Then, drawing toward him General Petit, who bore the flag of the regiment, he embraced them both, and, amid the tears of the soldiers, flung himself into his carriage and drove away. And so vanished the last hero of Fontainebleau, and we are left to make our way back to the Hotel d'Armagnac, and think over all that we have seen.
What a luncheon party it is, out under the plane trees! The memories of Kings and Queens soon retire before the dachshunds, the pointers, the children, the shopgirls, the motorists, and motoristes. What a babel of tongues! The air is full of tinkling, as the guests tap their glasses to call the attention of the waiters, who flit about with inconceivable rapidity.
" Prenez patience, messieurs! Je n'ai pas assez de bras pour servir tout le monde a la fois! " cries poor Henri, whose face is glistening with perspiration.
Madame is " desolee " that we have to wait. She has doffed her crochet coat, and is working as hard or harder than any one. It is she who presently brings us our strawberries and cream.
And then... Well, we set off once more into the enchanted forest, and leave Fontainebleau to continue its dreams.