The Pleasant Land Of France
( Originally Published 1938 )
MARIE, MY DEAR:-
WE are here in Touraine. In Touraine, where Saint Martin divided his cloak, and Charles Martel defeated the Moors! In Touraine, where the Middle Ages, deep-hued as their gold-and-blue evangiles, lie open before us, and the gorgeous pageantry of the Renaissance seems perpetually to be marching by! It 's all history; it 's all France! My eager type-writer persists in sprinkling exclamation points and italics over my pages, and I cannot restrain it. I warn you that this is going to be a long and enthusiastic letter; I want to talk to you, and I want you to listen to me. So put it down till the children have trotted off to school and Henry has gone to play tennis at Auteuil. I desire your undivided attention.
Our trip down was a pure pleasure; thirty miles out of Paris we forgot to regret it. The fruit trees were in bloom with their varying tints of pink and white, and the little clay-walled farmhouses began to draw themselves together into tiny hamlets as the train swept by. We were all admiration, it was so new to us, and I as you will recall am particularly impulsive. At Meung I lost all self-control, exclaimed indeed, I 'm not sure but I screamed "Oh, look! Look! Don't you remember? D'Artagnan!
It 's where he met the Man and Milady!" And Beaugency, which seemed dropped from some mediaeval Heaven! How could we keep still? How could we be quiet? Well, we were n't. We dashed from one window to another, to the lively disconcertion of a French family traveling with us. "On passe, et passe, et repasse," they grumbled, deeming us, no doubt, mad Americans. We were. Wild with the joys of really seeing our first chateaux: the walls of Blois stretching stately before us, and Amboise rising high and white above the Loire.
We came to stay one month, you know, and now we are well along in our second, and I don't believe we '11 start for Brittany until full June. We are so comfortable here, en pension in the old Cathedral quarter; from our windows the pleasantest view of gardens with ivied walls, and roses clambering against them, and tall, tall trees, and, in the salle a manger, repasts that do not make us sigh for our native land. And peaceful! It 's as quiet as Hanover in vacation: quieter, in fact, for there are few disturbing motors. Just the crowing of cocks, and the bells from the Carmelite convent and the towers of St.-Gatien, to break the monotony every now and then and make you realize how completely tranquil it all is. When you come to Tours this summer, you must live here; you will love it as much as I do, I know. I want you to inherit our happiness, and besides, Mlle. S--speaks a French so charmingly, so admirably phrased, that to listen to her is like turning the pages of some interesting novel.
Do you wonder that we linger? When first we came, in Easter week, all the ancient gray houses of the Cathedral close, the high walls of the old garden of the archbishopric, even St.-Gatien itself, were tufted with yellowest giroflees, growing from seeds that some long-ago wind had planted in the crevices, I suppose, and lately these have given way to clusters of dusky-pink lilas d'Espagne, and a deep blue flower which resembles a wild larkspur. My dear, I have been like a starved city child, impatient to pick them all. Spring was very early this year, everybody says, and the meadows have been full of clovers and violets and dandelions and buttercups and wee crimson-tipped daisies blossoming at the same time. Even small scarlet poppies. Think of that, when at home, at this season, I am usually engaged in scraping away the reluctant snow from the north side of the house to see if the first green shoots of the daffodils are beginning to peer. Think of white roses climbing up to my window and opening their creamy chalices for me in April! But now they are going by, and festoons of red roses star the vine-hung walls; the cur de Jeanette a much prettier name than "bleeding heart," I think has faded, and so have the lilacs and wisteria. I am filled with regret that you will not see them as I did, because until you behold their fragrant lavender spires massed together, you have no conception how lovely purples can be. The great horse-chestnut trees have lighted their pink and white candles, lighted them and blown them out again, and to-day the little green spiky balls are falling and covering the ground already drifted with acacia petals. Yes, Spring has almost passed; I can just catch the last flutter of her garments. But don't be sorry; you '11 be here in the summer, and Touraine always reaches out blossom-filled arms.
You'd think from this that I 'd spent every day in sentimental botanizing, in gathering flowers. Ah, but I've been gathering antiquities as well; picking up pretty and useful old things : glass and brass and heavy peasant linen and naive faience for very little "pour un morceau de pain," as the old French saying goes. Still, is n't that just the equivalent of our English "for a song"? Little Tommy Tucker sang for his supper, and, if I remember rightly, it consisted of white bread and butter.
At first the antique-prices here staggered me; apparently the American soldiers bought lavishly and for absurd sums; in general the values are much higher than in Paris, certainly higher than in the Left Bank shops. Up and down the little rue de la Scellerie we went, there must be at least ten magasins d'antiquites on this one small street, and glass and faience were very high and silhouettes absolutely unfindable. But on we walked, for I am persistent and Orde is obliging. At last, on the Place Emile Zola, we saw a shop the lower part of a house it was so chic and with such charmingly arranged windows that I hesitated to enter. But there was a very engaging pressed-glass cup and saucer displayed on a square of old brocade, and we ventured in. I expected to be asked well, maybe fifty francs, for some quite ordinary goblets in one of the shops had been twenty-five francs apiece; but, do you know, this delicate bit of lace-glass was only twelve! So you can't always tell from outward appearances. I have nothing like it in my collection, nor have I met anybody else lucky enough to have one. Louis Philippe it is, about the size of one of those graceful pink-lustre teacups, very fine, and with a decoration of acanthus leaves, small incised diamonds, and formalized flowers. It is a treasure, I assure you, and I carried it home walking on air in more ways than one, for I employed all the eager care of one who treads a tight rope. I wish I could find five more like it for an iced-tea service.
My next purchase was just as fortunate: two very lovable little confiturieres, five-and-a-half inches tall and standing on small square diamond-pointed bases. Again these are unique, at least in my experience. The glass is admirably pressed, I begin to think better of French glass, the pattern, appropriately enough, conventionalized fleur-de-lis; and there is a little opening in each one just the size for a thin and delicate silver spoon. I shall use them for my most precious preserves, with my creamy queens-ware set and my old cross-stitch napkins. Will you come and take tea with me? I paid only ten francs for the pair, to-day a matter of seventy-odd cents but as I keep saying a bargain even with a normal ex-change; for five into ten goes twice, and two dollars for such prettiness is simply nothing at all. And I bought them at a tiny "shabby shop" way down on the rue du Grand Marche; for by this time I had begun to prowl and to do as I do in America, go to the places where the antique-dealers buy their wares.
Now that 's an interesting street, the rue du Grand Marchι: not so old, perhaps, as the hills, but certainly as the fifteenth century, for it is the ancient Quartier St: Martin. Near-by lived Jean Fouquet, court painter to Charles the Seventh, and so did Louis the Eleventh's dour Prime Minister, Tristan l'Ermite; you can visit his house to-day, and marvel at the winding brick stairway, the huge fireplaces, and the wonderful view from the tower across all the chimney-tops of Tours. Old houses, old houses, timbered, and slate-covered, and many-gabled ! Did you know that this was formerly a sign of prosperity, and that they still say in Touraine to-day, "il a pignon sur rue" (he has a gable on the street), to indicate a well-to-do bourgeois? And, oh, the names of the little crooked lanes! You can reconstruct the past just from reading them : street of the Goldsmiths, street of the Tanners, Crossbow street, Flower-basket street, street of the Gilded Scissors (about as wide as the palm of my hand), street of the Good Children. Alas, that the street of the Three Maidens it sounds like a mediaeval fairy-tale, does n't it? should have been changed to the more prosaic name of the rue Briconnet!
But to leave the past and come back to the present on the rue du Grand Marchι there is an excellent brocanteur (secondhand man) who has a house packed with things: rubbish for the most part, but occasion-ally you will find something quite worth-while. And there are two very good fripiers (junkmen), one just below, the other opposite my little "shabby shop." At the first I bought half a dozen silver spoons, old and slender, with narrow bowls and the little drop where bowl and handle meet, and which in the late eighteenth century replaced the rat-tail. For thirty francs I bought them, and when I remember that once, years ago, in Philadelphia, I found two for a dollar and a half apiece and all my friends exclaimed at my good luck, I think this time I made an even better bargain.
And at the across-the-street-shop I stumbled on a small gold-mine. The patronne, good woman, assured me that she had nothing at all that would interest me, but I politely persisted, and I found oh, I found a delightful engraving of Lafayette framed in an oval of blue and gilt imagine how well it will look in my Hepplewhite bedroom and with an outer binding of black passe-partout. This I shall have to replace because the glass is cracked, which seems a pity because the old passe-partout is always so interesting. That was half a franc; and for a whole one I found an odd little bowl, cream-colored and banded with silver lustre. I wish you could have seen it filled with tiny orange soucis (marigolds), Margaret of Navarre's favorite flowers, which I gathered in the fields of the Chenonceaux she knew and loved so much. A franc and a half bought an eighteenth-century drinking-glass, thick-based and pontil-marked, with fanciful engraved wreaths and festoons a type which antique-dealers sell at twenty to thirty francs, according to the loftiness of their notions. And for four francs I purchased a candlestick to give C.C., because it is as fat and round and jolly-looking as he is.
I really did n't mean to mention candlesticks; my collecting friends must be horribly bored at my continuous raptures about them. But I just must tell this one story. I stopped at a grimy little shop on the rue du Grand Marchι, near that beautiful Place Plumereau, and because the man looked so old and so poor I bought, for three francs, a candlestick which I did n't very much want. Instantly his selling instinct took fire. Here was an unbelievable customer, a woman who did not haggle, but who paid the first price demanded. Idly I picked up another, very much like the one, you know, I got for five francs in the little shop on the rue de Vaugirard, and which the woman told us was "Louis Treize." "But, Madame," the old man insisted, "that one is forty francs because of its great age. It is of the days of Charles the Seventh. Forty francs! I could have bought a wilderness of candlesticks at the Rag Fair for all that money. I made him my compliments on its extreme antiquity, and put it care-fully down. I had really thought that the early seventeenth century was quite a long while ago. But the fifteenth ! Moreover, I am convinced that my beloved Jeanne d'Arc would have needed a far larger flame to light up the deep and shadowy walls of the old guardhouse at Chinon. Ah well, so much for legend, and the soaring impulse it gives to prices!
By the way, I no longer open my eyes wide in the same awed admiration of the sixteenth century that I did in Paris. Why, in Tours I can walk out and behold the twelfth any time I like : look at the round towers built by Henry Plantagenet, or at the tall gray gable of an ancient chapel in the Place St.-Gregoire de Tours. Always here there is the sense of time long past; to me it was encouragingly romantic to be recommended to a remailleuse such an excellent one she is, able to mend a delicate silk stocking so that you cannot find the darn whose shoplet was "en face de la Tour de Charlemagne, Madame." Actually the tower is n't so old as that; it has the effrontery to have been built as late as somewhere in the eleven-hundreds, and is so called only because it was erected over the tomb of Luitgarde, Great Charles's third wife.
And when you are down this way, you must be sure to stop at the little stalls in the neighborhood of the market. Every Wednesday and Saturday there is a fair, and while at first glance there does not seem to be very much, now and again you will pick up a bargain. I usually walk down the Boulevard Beranger because that 's where the Marche aux Fleurs is held : it 's such a constant happiness to regard those lovely masses of color; to buy, for a few francs, a great bunch of iris or peonies. Then I turn up the rue Chanoineau to the Place Gaston Pailhou, and, after I've walked through a long, tented lane filled with booths where lace and cloth and lingerie and stockings and general small-wares are sold, I have reached my destination. One morning I bought a plate-warmer for two-and-a-half francs. It is made of brass, cut out sides and top in a pretty pattern, while inside there is a small iron receptacle for char-coal. True, one of the wooden handles was missing, and it cost me four francs to have it replaced, but the cheapest of these old chauffe-plats in Paris was twenty-five francs, and it did not begin to be so charming as mine, which will be the nicest thing in the world to keep toast warm on a winter morning.
And there is a particularly nice old man, M.
Bonfils by name, who has a stall on the left-hand side of the market. From him I bought wonderful linen sheets, heavy and beautifully woven, for eight francs apiece, and one that had a "brack" in it he sold for six francs. Great, enormous things they are; even allowing for a few thin places I shall have enough for many luncheon-sets and table-runners. Besides, in America, it is only in the Pennsylvania Dutch country that you can find such linen to-day, and it is, of course, infinitely more expensive. Still, in spite of this happy experience, I connect M. Bonfils with a tragedy, one of those minor collecting-tragedies which befall every lover of old things. The first day I found out his stall, he had a very fine old warming-pan, copper with bands of brass, that 's extremely rare, and something else that I have seen just in France, a little metal button close to the handle, by which to lift up the lid. It was only twelve francs, but I had just a five-franc note fool that I was not to leave that to bind the bargain! I told him that I 'd come back for it the next market-day. And that Wednesday, alas we walked to Plessis-less-Tours, Louis Eleventh's grim chateau, and pursued, I am convinced, by his malignant spirit, we were caught in the most frightful rain-storm, and, wet to the bone, had to hurry home and change. And then it was too late to go to the Marchι, and when I returned on Saturday, some collectors from Paris had swooped down on my warming-pan and carried it off. There 's a whole collecting-moral in this simple tale. Never put off until to-morrow a purchase that you can possibly make to-day.
But then, I blame the rain, for I am rarely a laggard in my love antique-ing. Ah, such rain as we have had! Showers and showers, and long gray days, and desolate evenings, when all you wanted to do was to follow Stendhal's advice: curl up by an open fire, light a myriad candles, and read the naive legends of Saint Gregory of Tours. Yet you have n't been better off in Paris; every cinema I've seen has shown all the street festivals forlornly dotted with glistening umbrellas. Everybody says, too, that autumn is the season for Touraine. And I know why. Once upon a time, long centuries ago, when Saint Martin was neither a bishop nor a saint, but only a simple Roman soldier, in November the weather used to be cold, freezing cold: snow and sleet as we know it nowadays in New England. So when, one bitter morning, he saw a poor faggot-gatherer, starved and shivering with the wind, Saint Martin cut his cape in two slashed it with his soldier's swordand gave half to the beggar. Ah, but the cape had not been his to bestow; and the Roman general, infuriated, ordered him for punishment to stand, without shelter or cloak, naked in the desolate courtyard. Then the bon Dieu, all compassion, looked down from Heaven, and miraculously the sky grew soft and blue, the wind gracious and warm; and now every November, to greet the thronging pilgrims, comes Saint Martin's summer, in memory of the soldier-saint's gentle charity.
Of course we have had marvelous days of sunshine, also, and since I am incurably romantic, I cannot find it in my heart to regret the rain when I remember our first trip to Langeais, when I think of the view across a valley of lilacs, dripping sweetness, to Foulques Nerra's old donjon beyond, and the red and yellow gillyflowers, spangled with raindrops, nodding down at us from all the low roofs on the crooked little rue Jeanne d'Arc. Still there should be reason in everything; if it had n't poured torrents at Chinon, where the rains descended and the floods came, I might have discovered such charming things. For I have made it a custom everywhere I go to ask for antiquity shops, or, failing those, for brocanteurs. I found a fascinating shop at Loches, where for thirteen francs I bought four odd little faience mugs, two cap-snuffers and another "Charles the Seventh" candlestick. The mugs are really most engaging: a soft gray body with painted wreaths of flowers, and children's names printed upon them: "Georges" and "Louis" and two for "Laure."
Langeais has a brocanteur that you might keep in mind, I '11 give you his name, but at Chenonceaux, Chaumont, and Azay-le-Rideau I found nothing at all, although at Azay I saw such a darling little footstool that it set me searching in Tours, where I finally found one on the rue de Commerce for twenty francs. It is oak, rather plain, with shapely baluster and pear legs, and a simply turned central stretcher: points which put it, as to type, toward the end of the seventeenth century. But in the provinces styles lingered on, and it may very well have been made in the eighteenth. I chose it in preference to an elaborately carved and "taffy-twisted" bane, not only because that was much more expensive, but also because it was the kind so frequently faked. And then the plainer one will better become my modest furniture, fall in more agreeably with my small North Country stenciled stool, and keep it company beside my friendly fireplace. It is the one bit of oak I intend ever to admit to Webster Cottage.
At Blois I found two quite excellent magasins d'antiquites up on the hill street which leads you past the Hotel d'Alluie. At one I bought a pretty little pressed-glass plate, six inches in diameter, and with a braided border somewhat resembling those on the Bunker Hill cup-plates, and the finest old hand-wrought iron latch that I have seen for sale; and they were two francs and three francs respectively. But at the second shop I brought away nothing but a disappointment. A disappointment, because I could have bought a really beautiful walnut table for a hundred and fifty francs. This time I do believe it was late Louis Treize; it had the characteristic legs and saltire brace of that epoch, a little like the later seventeenth-oentury style of William and Mary, for, of course, styles in furniture developed earlier on the Continent than in England. But I had n't a single place to put it; so though it still haunts my memory I am trying to forget its perfections.
But the blow at Amboise was even harder to bear. Here there are two antique-shops and one brocanteur, and it was in his crowded rooms that I discovered something I wanted, and something I had a place for, too : a massive eighteenth-century cherry-wood buffet. Just the thing for Orde's study: he constantly complains that the black linen-chest does n't allow him half room for his papers and pamphlets. I wanted terribly to give it to him for his birthday, but he would n't listen to me. It was only four hundred francs, about twenty-eight dollars with the favorable rate of exchange; and when I think of what I shall have to pay for the simplest highboy as a solution to that furniture problem ! Even if I can find one. And this buffet was lovely, lovable: a rich brown-gold like those old presses Albert Semain describes, dowered with memories and fragrant with the apples it has held. It had squat little Louis Quinze legs, a great cupboard below, while the upper press was lined with faded wall-paper patterned with mandarins and pagodas all the chinoiserie of its time. I wanted it as I've wanted nothing else that I've seen in France; wanted it more, I believe, than the pair of graceful walnut chairs for sale at a shop on the rue de la Scellerie. They are Dutch, with curving splat-backs and bending cabriole legs, and the seats are covered with tattered green brocade. I could get the pair for about forty dollars, but Orde is still obdurate and sternly forbids me to lay them at his feet. I am comparing myself favorably with the Patient Griselda, and wondering what good a husband's birthday does you, after all. Though, perhaps, he is right: they would n't fit in, and I really am trying to hold myself in check until I reach England and can find just the Hepplewhite chairs I need.
But I have fallen too deeply in love with French peasant furniture to do without it, and I confide to you my dearest plans. I mean to make my economies, buy an ancient turreted house here in Touraine, and fill it full of old armoires and buffets and chests and carved slat-back chairs. I mean to have a sweet-voiced Tourangelle with an embroidered cap for my capable femme de menage, and a gardener in wide corduroys and clumping sabots, I could get them both for what I 'd have to pay one inefficient servant in America, a gay rose-garden circling round a rustic sundial, peacocks and fan-tailed pigeons, and a charrette with high blue wheels and a brisk little donkey to drag it for me. Dreams? No, my dear; it 's part of my simple faith that if you want anything enough and in the right way, you 're bound to get it.
For you, with a new house to fill, Touraine ought to be the happiest of hunting-grounds. And even if you don't buy much furniture, do look about for the interesting old wrought-iron that the countryside abounds in. I fell in love with it first at Langeais and Chaumont, and while I do not mean to say that I have found anything like the latches with fleur-de-lis or the kingly knockers which adorn those magnificent chateaux, nevertheless, I have picked up here and there, at small antiquity shops and brocanteurs' and along the Quai Poissonerie where, during the grande semaine of May, a junk-fair is always held seventeen very good latches and bolts and two knockers. Most of them are for you, because I have always felt so sorry that your ancestral mansion was despoiled of all its old hardware, and I do believe that many of them would be very harmonious with the house that so soon you will be a-building. And do not despise my humble offering; although I bought all of mine for a little more than thirty francs, an expensive shop will charge from ten to thirty francs apiece for them according to their age and pattern. I just went to original sources, that 's all, for I never disdain to buy where dealers do.
Ah, Marie, come to Tours ! I know that Henry is playing with the idea of Lausanne, but put it out of your heads; Switzerland can't be so lovely as Touraine. Every day is a fresh delight: whenever we take our walks abroad, how many joys we see! Glimpses as we pass by of a tranquil blue Virgin set against the ivy-grown walls of an old convent; a tapestry of roses flung over the trellises of the Arch-bishop's garden; and such throngs of ancient houses that we buy our little cakes in a one-time mansion of magnificence built by Thomas Bohier, treasurer to Francis the First, and go to the cinema in the gorgeous shell of a seventeenth-century church. And always Saint Gatien, my cathedral, very little changed from the days when the poor little innocent-minded curι trotted in the rain across its cobblestoned cloisters and feared to wet his buckled shoes. I have the habit now of dropping in almost every time I pass, and resting a while in the jeweled dusk of windows colored long before Columbus even thought of discovering America; of pausing to examine with careful affection the sacristy door carved with Gothic saints, and lingering to pay my reverence to the wistful little white tomb of Charles the Eighth's children.
Queen Mary's saying serves for me; open my heart and you will see graved inside of it Touraine. Do hurry down to love and enjoy it all as we have.
Your affectionate friend, ALICE