Amazing articles on just about every subject...

The Road Back To Rouen

( Originally Published 1938 )

August 5, 1923

MY dear GRACE:

THE italics not only show my affection; they also reveal my enthusiasm. You know I promised you a letter from Brittany, because we both love the sea and the sands and rocks that lie along its blue edge. Well, here I am writing from Normandy; destiny was greater than my determination, and for me the road lay back to Rouen. We loitered so long in Paris — loving its every aspect, and, incidentally, waiting for John's school to be over — that all the agreeable lodgings were taken, since, in August, the petit fonctionnaire has a way of hurrying to these pleasant places to enjoy his vacation. Of course we could have gone to gorgeous tourist hotels, but, frankly, that suited neither our purse nor our inclinations.

I shall never, never regret it; the journey back was even more delightful than when we first went down; we exchanged promise for fulfillment: orchard trees all pink and white for yellowed harvest fields, and woods that were varied shades of green. Normandy is so beautiful, and Rouen — ah, Rouen! — is the most enchanting city I have ever beheld ! Daily I wander in the fifteenth century until I have n't an adjective left in the world. And all of us adored it at once, even John, who, after a week in Touraine, declared that "Tours was an interesting town, but not very snappy." As for myself, I mourned for Paris that first week in Touraine, and lamented Tours for a full fortnight once I had gone back to Paris; not that I am perverse; this is just to show the real affection I felt for both places. But to Rouen we gave our swift, ungrudging hearts.

Let me describe our lodgings. Some holiday or other is on, and, as if in vengeance for the Battle of Hastings, England is invading Normandy; the streets seem full of mild little clergymen pointing out churchly glories to tall and lanky sons in their teens. Everything but the finest rooms in the most grandiloquent hotels is taken, and here we are, tucked away in a tiny inn : a seventeenth-century structure erected round a wide, paved courtyard. The house must have been grandly built in its day; the tall trellis-work in the square old cour is gracefully elaborate, and our rooms — repaneled, no doubt, in the eighteenth century — are white and stately and beautifully conceived, and the old locks are very fine. But the parquetry floors, neatly joined and angled as to-day we find them in old Southern houses, have been so scrubbed by housewifely zeal that they have lost their lustrous polish, and all the lover of the past in me arises and longs to give back the vanished shine; to restore the house to its first perfection; to put just the right brocades at the windows and on the chairs; and to raise the cuisine — already good — to a height of Norman excellence that would make it famous throughout France. So much for dreams! In the mean time, the furniture is n't bad. I have a turned-leg table and modest Louis-Philippe chairs in my room, while the girls admire the colored prettiness of two Empire bough-pots on their marble mantelpiece.

So, you see, for me the uses of adversity are very sweet indeed; the proprietor and his plump wife are kindness itself, the prices are most considerate of our already too-depleted pocket-book, and — best of all — we are just at one side of the old Cathedral. From my high courtyard room I feel as if I could reach out my hand and touch the tall Butter Tower, erected in the fifteenth century by the money paid for indulgences during Lent. (By the way, I may here remark that the good Rouennais are still fond of excellent food.) And early in the morning I am awakened by the most beautiful chimes. To-day I 'd have sworn they were playing the ancient tune of "Green-sleeves" — the one, you know, we sing on Christmas Eve for "What Child is this that, laid to rest —."

It is the most admirable of all cathedrals, I think; I do not wonder that artists so love to paint it. It is more beautiful than Chartres, more impressive than St.-Gatien, more human than Notre Dame. If faith removed mountains, it also built cathedrals.

I never before realized the aspiration and thanks-giving and sacrifice that went to the lifting of these mighty monuments of prayer, rich and poor alike giving themselves and their worldly goods together; I never before fully comprehended Huysmans when he wrote that a Gothic cathedral was "the flight of the soul." And every day, I see more and more what Villon meant in the touching prayer for his old mother: that the cathedrals were the open books of the poor and unlettered, where Paradise was painted with its harps and its lutes, and a vivid Hell gaped wide for sinners. They must have carved the dailiness of life as well, these skillful, forgotten craftsmen; Orde and I thrilled the other day when, over the left portal, high, high up, we discovered a noble family sitting at meat, with jugglers and dancers to amuse, them, and even a little trained dog going through his naive repertoire at one end of the hall.

Somebody or other has called Rouen the "museum city." It really should be known, too, as the "city of churches." In medieval Germany people used to say of a prosperous man that his affairs went as well as those of le bon Dieu in France, and I 'm sure they must have been thinking of Rouen when they said it. Walk where you will, you see gray stone lace pointing against a completely blue sky. My pious pilgrimages have been rewarded in other ways, too : a great many of the antiquity shops are near the churches, and I have found some delightful bits of old Normandy to bring back with me. First, near St.-Laurent I discovered a little tumbled-together shop, — in a fifteenth-century timbered house, my dear, — and I bought a Mocha-ware mug to add to my collection. I have thirteen now, and I don't at all consider it an unlucky number. It is a soft creamy color, brown-banded at the top, with a spraying, tree-like decoration adorning the sides, and I think it must have been intended for a child, because it is hardly more than two-and-a-half inches in height. I'm sure also that it must have strayed over from England, for it has that light weight and fine texture, so different from the ware made in imitation, a little later, in our own country.

This was five francs; and then for forty — which seems an awful lot, I know, but which amounted to less than two dollars and a half — I purchased a pair of Empire mantel-vases which are really and truly the loveliest I have ever seen. Years ago, when we first began housekeeping, part of my husband's dowry was a pair of vases of the same genre, and they sat in their gilt prettiness, adorning either end of my parlor mantel, until a too impetuous house-maid removed them on a dusting foray and they went the way of all china. Many times I have searched, hoping to replace them, and this is the first chance that 's ever come to me. And, in fulfillment of the benign law of compensation, they are a hundred times as captivating. They are taller, measuring nearly nine inches; charming acanthus leaves curve up at either side of the base, and the painted bouquets — which my others lacked — bloom as sweetly as if I had just gathered them from my old-fashioned gar-den. They are as gayly colored as my valentines, and once and for all, my mind is settled as to the origin of the finest of these vases which we pick up hereabouts. I know now that they came from France. Madame beamed at my raptures, and very graciously did not raise the price. She told me that they were intended for a garniture de cheminee under a framed bridal wreath. How nice! Ever so much pleasanter, don't you think, than the forlorn fashion of coffin-plates and funeral flowers which still grace our New England parlors?

But there is no doubt that the Cathedral Quarter is the best for antique and "shabby" shops and brocanteurs; there must be nine or ten at least very near it. You could, if you were in the usual American hurry, visit the Cathedral, St.-Ouen, St.-Maclou and those wonderful cloisters just beyond, and buy a whole trunkful of antiquities, in the small space of one day. Which, of course, I hope you won't — it 's so much better to be leisurely; to linger, gazing with amazement at the macabre decorations of the timbered aitre; to marvel at the carved doors of Jean Goujon; to pause a while in the holy magnificence of the great Cathedral, and watch the soft blues and roses of the thirteenth-century windows painting the marble effigy of Richard Coeur-de-Lion, whose body lies at Fontevrault but whose heart — as befitted a Duke of Normandy — is buried at Rouen. And then go out into the day again, and content your longing soul with more recent beauty: things made in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries.

I do wish people would n't hurry so through Rouen; it isn't a place for a day or two days, or even a week, but for months; and even then you would n't know it all. I have the feeling that if I could stretch myself three ways: make my purse fuller and my trunks emptier, lengthen my weeks into fortnights, — and many of them, — there is nothing, nothing I could not get.

Listen! At a brocanteur's, not more than a stone's throw from the Cathedral, I found two of the charm-ingest copper pieces for only fifteen francs apiece.

One — a small, squat teapot with a well-crooked iron handle and an inquisitive spout — is for you, because you 're so fond of teapots. Just think! In a very few weeks from now I myself shall present it for your — I hope — admiring approval. Still, afterward, if you decide that you prefer my card-cut bassinoire, why, you may have that instead. And the other piece, a little eighteenth-century cruchon, is for the T s; they spent their honeymoon in Normandy,

you know, and they are just as much attached to it as I am.

But I had a hard time making up my mind, for I discovered at another antiquity-shop two lovely blue Staffordshire bowls, — again fifteen francs, — and at first I thought I ought to give them those, for both of them — the T s and the bowls, I mean — are such nicely matched pairs; but, after all, the T----s love France and the bowls are English; and that settled it. I think you will admire them as much as I do, — the bowls, of course; I seem to have mixed both couples hopelessly, — for age has creamed the paste almost to an ecru, and the deep border of dark blue leaves and flowers is very pretty. From the design I should say that Stevenson had made them, but I have n't my Blue China book with me, and I don't like to be too positive. They are about the size of the Enoch Wood bowl on my dining-room mantel, and I think I shall enjoy them, turn and turn about. In the Japanese manner, you observe.

It 's strange how many English antiquities you find in Rouen — and yet, really, why should I be surprised? For Normandy is very near the English coast, with the Channel Islands for a go-between. Certainly I have found more lustre here than any-where else : terre de Jersey they call it, and only the fact that all my bags are cram-jam full kept me from bringing back a pretty pink-sprigged sugar-bowl. But then I am not a lustre-collector, and it did n't go with a thing I have, and sensible "antiquers" always draw the line somewhere. I found glass salt-cellars, too, clearly of English origin; but they were rather battered and so I did n't get them, either.

About my snuffers and the little black japanned tray which holds them I am not so sure. Still, England was making and exporting quantities of such things in the early nineteenth century; judging from the Columbian Centinel, they must have arrived in America by boat-load: and I don't see why they should n't have gone to France, also. Mine I bought one day when Orde and I were wandering about the lower end of the town, back of St.-Ouen and St.-Maclou. That 's where you find the old streets: the little twisting rue du Petit Mouton and the impasse des Hautes Mariages looking, I am sure, very much as they must have appeared five or six centuries ago. We had gone down to see the rue de l'Eau de Robec, one of those ancient streets that have given Rouen the name of "the Venice of France"; for here the tall timbered houses overhang a small canal, and reflect themselves in the sluggish stream where very dirty little gamins sail paper boats. Age is its only virtue, and the Quartier Martainville has kept more of its former charm. Then we swung round by St.-Ouen, and on the rue St.-Vivien, quite near the street of the Abbι of the Sword, — I record this because it is so mindful of the days when the Church was the Church Militant,— I found a half-and-half shop — by which I mean that it lingered between a magasin d'antiquites and a brocanteur's display. Now, glancing at the card, I realize that the proprietor advertises himself as a buyer of unredeemed pawnbrokers' pledges — a very happy hunting-ground indeed. He had good metals: candlesticks, warming-pans, kettles, and strainers; oddly enough, copper in Normandy is much cheaper than brass; and I longed for — but did n't buy — some of the old and beautifully cut silver jewelry. Instead, I got my quaint stenciled snuffer-tray and the snuffers that went with it. Fifteen francs was its price; is n't it queer how my purchases run that way? At one time, in Paris, twenty-five seemed to be the standard. This one is a little different from any I have seen here: octagonal in shape, outlined with gold, then banded with vermilion, notes of color which meet again in the central design of fruit: diminutive peaches, picked out with bright green leaves.

Of course there are many other antique-shops; the rue Beauvoisin, near that admirable Palais de Justice, is literally strewn with them. Indeed, I think the most interesting of them all is there — a great house stuffed with lovely things, quite as full as that huge place just across the river from us, only here you want everything, and there you don't. I could have bought for ten dollars apiece a very fine set of slat-back chairs with the turned leg which in France means the early nineteenth century; and when I tell you that there were ten of them, and that they all had excellently preserved rush-seats, you will understand what a bargain they were. And you must visit the little house on the Place de la Rouge-mare; it is centuries old, and the workman who lives there mends and refinishes furniture very well, besides having odd pieces always, and occasionally interesting little bibelots. There are steps up, and steps down, and low little doors where you bang your head if you are not careful, and a narrow, red-tiled doorway. Altogether it is charming, and, more-over, just across the way you will see the most beautiful mansion in all Rouen, and that 's high praise. Just on the corner, it stands where Richard the Fear-less is said to have defeated Louis d'Outremer. I remember, when you were a small girl, you used to weep over Elsie Dinsmore, but I 'm not sure whether you loved and sorrowed over The Little Duke as I did. That 's why it made me absurdly happy to stand on the very spot where my childhood's hero triumphed over his cruel oppressor and won a free Normandy for himself.

I 've wanted you with me many times on these antique-ing trips, but most of all I wished you were here last Friday, for then came the Marche aux Fleurs. Always, if you have just a few days for Rouen, choose Thursday, and then go down the next morning, very early, to the Place de la Calende, our square, at the right-hand side of the Cathedral. We heard a babel beginning — I should say — at seven o'clock, and when we stepped out of our door, we found our way barred by flowers, a bright patchwork of color; or rather it was like a huge strip of embroidery with the repeated motifs of lilies, geraniums, gillyflowers, dahlias, pinks, marigolds, and sweet peas — oh, more than I can possibly name! I know I counted more than thirty different varieties. And there was an old, old peasant in a white coiffe, selling catnip: a thing that until now I have searched for throughout France without avail. Alicia was just as delighted as I was, and we bought a huge bunch with the intention of feeding all the stray pussy-cats in Rouen. But I looked in vain for the "mouron pour les oiseaux" that Flaubert described in Madame Bovary.

After we had enjoyed the flowers and the people selling them, we walked down the rue d'Epicerie, — one of the finest slate houses is on this street; the carvings are lovely: angels playing psalteries and lutes,— across the Square of the Old Tower, through a long lane of mercers and an angle of pastry-shops, into the most primitive market: metiers de la bouche and all sorts of other necessities too, in the way of laces and cloths and yarns. There were plums — fat, purply ones with the bloom still on them, heaped high in splint baskets; ducks and hens and pigeons and rabbits, alive and looking at you with reproachful eyes; piles of multi-colored vegetables; great strings of garlic; and mounds of butter and cheese. Even creme fraiche, my favorite French delicacy, which really is lyric, although the children insist it tastes like sour cream whipped up. My epicurean inclinations led me into an antique adventure. On the goodwife's table I saw the jolliest little blue-banded copper-lustre pitcher full of the creme. Of course I tried to buy it—wouldn't you?—but the woman kept shaking her head and saying "Non ! Non!" till I thought she did n't understand, which surprised and grieved me, because my French has lately become quite intelligible. So I dragged Orde over, and then it developed that the pitcher belonged to a meek little man at the edge of the crowd, who was just waiting patiently to take his marketing home. I still think I could have bullied him into selling it to me, — with a sweet, persuasive smile, you comprehend, — but my cruel husband refused to let me try, and dragged me, protesting, away.

Perhaps that 's why I enjoyed going to the Rag Fair alone and untrammeled. Just as in Paris, this marche is held on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday; and just as in Paris, too, I got the impression that these poorer people, like the women on Cape Cod who are supposed to make their living by taking in each other's washings, survive by selling backward and forward to their acquaintances. Though, of course, the antique-dealers reap their usual harvest. I don't suppose the casual visitor to Rouen knows anything about this interesting and curious fair,

The small darning-ball, carved, no doubt, by some Norman sailor, that I bought at the Rouen Rag Fair which is perhaps a ten-minute walk from the Cathedral down the rue Alsace-Lorraine to the Place St.-Marc, and where, as at all these junk-markets, it pays to be an early bird.

Behold the worms that I caught! Two pretty little stenciled trays for fifty centimes each: one in black and gilt, the other with a gay bouquet (Margaret has already claimed them for her room at college); for three francs, a charmingly carved darning-ball which is going far, I know, to relieve the monotony of mending; and for five francs, a fine, sturdy pair of bellows for my dining-room fireplace. The tone of the reddish-brown wood is just what I need for the hue of the bricks, and I prefer the gouged work of formalized flowers and the brass-studded design to any stenciled pattern I have ever seen. The work reminds me of the Pennsylvania Dutch craftsmanship; in fact, a great many times in Normandy I have seen pieces which suggest a Low Country or even a South German influence. The brightly painted chests are very like the ones you find in Lancaster County, and the drinking-glasses have more than a suggestion of Stiegel.

All my treasures were from tiny stalls or flat-on-the-ground heaps in the open market-place, but there is a covered building where you find the more pretentious shoplets, and where, I fancy, steady searching would produce many really valuable things. I was investigating them when a sudden voice hailed me with the flattering appellation, "Ma petite dame." It is so long since anybody has called me "my little lady" that I paused, instantly, and found an agree-able vender who wanted to sell me anything, every-thing; he aimed to please; and when I discovered nothing in his old metals or furniture, he besought me to come back the next week, when his wife would have a completely new assortment of antiquities. Seriously, I know I shall be sorry when I am at home again and realize that I have none of those Norman iron candlesticks; they are very plain and good-looking, but I have so many already, and my family laugh at me so whenever I appear with a fresh one, that I just did n't get any. I am beginning to believe, however, that the story of the brass candlestick with flattened slides being normand is apocryphal; I have n't found a single one of that type in all my prowling.

But, by the way, in my search for them I did find a funny little anecdote. I had stopped to look over a windowful of candlesticks, and when I told the patronne what I wanted, she urged me in horror not to think of buying anything so very recent as a candlestick with a slide. " Still, they must be late eighteenth or early nineteenth century, a hundred years old at least," I replied. "But, Madame," she answered solemnly, quite in the manner of Mr. Kipling's small boy from Quebec, "we don't call that old in Rouen!" I suppose they don't. To a town straight out of the Middle Ages a cycle more or less probably seems as a day.

There must be numberless old things throughout this lovely countryside. Three different times in antiquity shops I have seen people come in from the outskirts, offering pieces for sale. One bargain quite enthralled me. Dressed in her most impressive Sunday black, — except in the remotest districts, and even there, only on high holidays, nobody wears any more the bright-hued, wide-skirted peasant costume,— a brisk countrywoman came in where I was examining mottoed wine-glasses, and asked the proprietor if he would care to buy an old armoire. It was at Yvetot on the Caudebec road, and immediately my nimble fancy bestowed it upon Beranger's amiable king, and I felt convinced that he must have kept his cot-ton nightcaps in its ample drawers. I shall always wonder about it.

I do wish that we had had time to go antique-ing on our trip to Bouille, a little town an hour's ride up the river from Rouen. I did the Seine an injustice when, in Paris, I called it gray; in the lower reaches it is blue, that intense blue Renoir paints it. And you ride past beauty nearly all the way: by Croisset, Flaubert's home; past Val de la Haye where the second funeral of Napoleon began its stately march to the capital; by the romantic ruins of Robert the Devil's gray old castle, set in the folding hills. Bouille is lovely in its simplicity; we stopped for tea — literally, cool glasses of beer and limonade — at a little white inn, hanging close over the water's edge and covered with vines. And then we strolled up through an immaculate Norman town, in and out of narrow streets where the women were busily engaged in sweeping what seemed to us flawlessly clean side-walks, and up and up a hillside path to the Maison Brulee for dinner.

Do you know, Grace, except for the ivy hanging in thick festoons down the banks, we might have been walking up those rugged little lanes that lead to Jericho? Blackberries were ripening on the unkempt bushes, and we stopped to pick and eat them just as we do at home. At the top of the hill the open valley stretched for miles below — the wide Seine valley, yellow with ripening grain, and looped by that gorgeous river. You '11 think that I am very provincial, that I carry Hanover with me wherever I go and constantly take it out for comparison; but truly the view did remind me of those glimpses from Sunset Hill. Only I do wish North Country farmers would go back to the wheat-raising days of their forefathers; it would so add to the landscape. Maison Brulee is a pretty place : just a hamlet with a rural inn set in shading trees, where we had an exquisite dinner with the best petit cidre I have tasted in Normandy, for, naturally, the season is getting late and this local drink is not at its best. I am aware that etiquette books say that you should not speak of "lovely food," but here I must. For it was ! A cream soup, an omelette aux fines heroes, salad with mint tossed in the dressing, — it 's unbelievably good, — and for dessert, fresh yellow plums, Pont d'Eveque cheese, and black coffee which fulfilled all the French requisites of being as strong as hate, as sweet as love, and as hot as hell! We enjoyed every bit of it: our table out under the trees, a light breeze cooling the heat, and fat and friendly hens that came to pick up the largesse of our crumbs. Afterward we walked to the little station — for the last boat had long since puffed down the river — through the forest of La Londe, a greenwood forest where Little Red Riding Hood might suddenly have appeared, trotting along with her cake and her pat of butter, and so lonely that we saw just the forester sitting in front of his thatched cottage, and a trudging peasant pushing a wheel-barrow. And we gathered great armfuls of Queen Anne's lace — I wonder if the French have as beguiling a name as ours for this pretty plant — and clusters of a purple flower that I have never seen in America at all. And so home again to Rouen, our train winding through the shadows of La Londe, and every now and then giving us glimpses of a twilight, silvery Seine curving deep down in the valley.

Our days are very delightful, don't you think? Well, so are our evenings, I assure you. We have found a sidewalk cafι where we can sit and sip our after-dinner coffee, and watch the sky fading from rose to violet-gray, from purple to velvety black, and the pointed spires of Bonsecours, high up on the cliff, blurring slowly out of sight against it. And listen to super-excellent music — higher in average, I do believe, than anything we hear at the Pops. One night, for example, the orchestra, among many other things, played Schubert's Military March, the overture from Phedre, Glazunov's Starlit Night, Beethoven's third trio, and the Cιsar Franck sonata! I am bringing the programme home with me, because I 'm positive you'll doubt my word until you can see it in print.

Everywhere, every way, we are surrounded by a beauty so poignant that it almost brings tears to our eyes. I 'm torn by a desire to live here the rest of my days, and a longing for my own four walls. For my friends, too! Still, I am very sure that my heart must be much larger than Queen Mary's ever was. She had only Calais; but now, if you open mine, you will see — not just Touraine, or Paris, or Normandy, but all France engraved upon it.

Yours most affectionately, ALICE

Home | More Articles | Email: