France - Rheims - Via Verdun, Clermont, And Suippes
( Originally Published 1913 )
JULY 6TH—110 MILES (FROM METZ).
FRANCE—la belle France—at last ! How different everything seems almost as soon as the border is crossed. A great tree-lined road stretches ahead for miles without a break; vast grain-fields lie on either hand; and, in the distance, a winding brook is lined with symmetrical poplar trees in place of the picturesque willows, maples, lindens, or what not, of Germany.
A soldier in a floppy uniform of red trousers, brown gaiters and short blue jacket, springs out into the road and motions for us to stop. The cluster of plain, one-story stucco houses of dirty yellow color and a douane sign, shows we have arrived at Mars-la-Tour, the French customs station. Pater nerves himself for his ordeal and enters a house to interview the official in charge. Volleys of French come crackling through the open window, and we hear the slow booming of Pater,* voice as he stands by his guns unabashed.
Meantime a black poodle, trimmed in finest topiary fashion, runs up to bark at us. Mater, who is very fond of dogs, tries to make friends with him in order to take his picture; but her French must be very poor, for the poodle runs away. The official's wife now comes forward to greet Mater, and they have a long chat. We are all much mystified until it comes to light that Mater, having learned a thing or two about the border, is calmly talking German.
What with the triptyques of the Touring Club of France and his native ingenuity, Pater reappears, dizzy but triumphant. The customs officer follows to inspect the baggage, but soon forgets this duty in the pleasure of sticking his nose into the machinery of our car while Bobby is fussing over the motor. As soon as Bobbie is ready we say good-by.
Peasants in long, loose, blue blouses come driving by, and even the horses have to submit to a change in the fashions and wear big fur collars which, while they may be very soft, look extremely warm for summer use. The road is lined with kilometre and decametre stones. We had found the kilometre and mile-stones on the main roads of Germany of some assistance, but there were no hundred-metre stones. In France, you can absolutely depend upon these marked stones for all main routes and many secondary roads and, if you memorize the names of the principal towns ahead, you need not look at a map. In Germany, we relied upon the fact that streets in cities, towns and villages, were almost invariably named after the highways to which they led; that the highway (chaussée) was named after the town or city to which it led ; and that there were excellent signposts at every crossroad. In France, we relied on the kilometre stones and on the fact that the entrance and the exit of each town had a big white-on-blue sign giving the name of the place, the name of the department, and the name (with a directing arrow) of the next town, as well as its distance away. Such signs are usually to be found on the walls of houses.
I wish to impress upon the reader, mind the fact that we were not fair-weather and good-road travelers. Some motorists pick out main routes and good roads and then tell exultingly of a trip without puncture or breakdown. Our idea of motoring was not that we could go wherever good roads permitted, but rather that, having an automobile, we could go everywhere (within reason) we wished to go. So we soon discovered that while France may have some of the best roads in the world, she also has, so far as motor travel is concerned, the very worst. You will readily sur-mise that I refer to the chemins pavés, the roads paved with Belgian blocks. They say that for strangers to enter Paris in a motorcar is a nerve-racking, axle-breaking experience; and if you wander through the country without carefully planning your route to avoid pavé, you are almost certain to strike many of these terrible, paved roads which make you wish you had never started. In Holland the paved roads are finer than the best French roads, for their brick-on-edge gives a dustless, easy-riding, nonskidding surface. In Germany, the paved roads of flat stones set to a level are very good, except that they lack the nonskid quality of the brick. But of the paved roads of France I can only say, heaven help you ! lest your angry passions lead you to "damnation."
German railroad crossings are usually provided with the cantilever gates we know so well in America ; all grade crossings being guarded, as is customary in European countries. Some of the gatekeepers in Germany are women, and it is amusing to see them (men and women alike) stand at attention while a train goes by. In France, many keepers are women; here they use the rolling gate and generally keep it closed—which, though adding to the traveler,* safety, is a source of vexation to the motorist who must wait until, after continued honking, a woman meanders out and, with great deliberation, rolls the two gates aside.
Riding through the uplands we could see forts in the distance. It is evident that France has determined never to be caught napping again. Beyond Pintheville we passed close to the château and fort d'Hanvrette; at Haudiomont another fort lay south of us ; and as we went up the great ridge near Verdun we passed between forts Rozellier and Haudainville, which belong to the ring of more than a dozen forts surrounding this town. Fine, modern forts—scarcely discernible save for a flagstaff and a glimpse of earth-works. From the heights we had a splendid view of the surrounding country, through which the river Meuse (German, Maas) goes winding on its way to Verdun.
At Verdun, luncheon was taken at the Hotel Trois Maures, a third-rate house though heading the list. However, we had the usual fun criticising the place. Scoffy caused some laughter by inquiring whether the time displayed were "vrai" instead of asking whether it were juste: But he established the fact that we had changed from German to French time, and were consequently an hour to the good. At an adjoining table a betrothal was being celebrated, and the proud air of proprietorship with which the hero of the hour, a young soldier, kept his arm around the waist of his fiancée, caused us to alternate from chuckles of amusement to smiles of sympathy with such an ingenuous display of bliss.
Verdun was the Roman Virodunum. Here, in 843, Lothaire, Ludwig the German, and Charles the Bald—grandsons of Charlemagne—divided his great empire. Verdun went to Germany, but shared the fate of Metz ; at the close of the Franco-Prussian war, during which it was captured after a stubborn defense of three weeks, Verdun was returned to France.
Passing over the Meuse bridge, Bobbie drove near the cathedral, the bishop's palace and the citadel, and, going out through the ring of forts, headed for St. Menehould on the Aisne. Part of our way lay along the pretty little Wadelincourt river, which we crossed several times, while at Vraincourt—just outside of Clermont—we crossed the Aire. St. Menehould has preserved an old church and part of the old town walls. It was at a posting-house, here, that Drouet recognized the hapless Louis XVI fleeing from France in 1791. The king and his family were arrested at Varennes, eight miles north of Clermont. Our road from Clermont to St. Menehould traversed the forest of Argonne and took us from the department of Meuse into that of Marne. Meuse, as you may well imagine, is part of old Lorraine; Marne, once Champagne, has conferred its ancient name on the products of its vine-yards.
Shortly after turning off the Châlons road our route led through Valmy where, in 1792, the allies under the duke of Brunswick were defeated by the French under Kellermann and Dumuriez. South of the village, a pyramid marking the battlefield contains Kellermann's heart. A romantic but rather antiquated idea, this glorification of the heart ; they might better have paid these high honors to the heads of the parties concerned, since, whichever way the heart was inclined, it was the brains that brought victory. The duke commanding the allies was one of those fighting Brunswickers whose coffins we saw in the cathedral crypt at Braunschweig.
We now pass a "family" of Sommes, each named after its river : Somme-Bionne, Somme-Tourbe, Somme-Suippe. Many names are duplicated among French towns, so the traveler is cautioned to be careful and explicit. On the vast plain between Suippes and Châlons-sur-Marne—still used for military maneuvers —Attila and his Huns were defeated (A. D. 451) by the Roman governor with the valuable assistance of Franks, Goths, and Burgundians. Some historians claim that though Attila threatened Châlons, the battle really took place near Troyes. Beyond Suippes we reached Jonchery-sur-Suippe; there is another Jonchery in Marne. Crossing the river Suippe brings us to St. Hilaire-le-Grand; there are at least five other St. Hilaires, two of them ("le-petit" and "au-Temple") within a radius of ten miles of "le-Grand." Marne is plentifully speckled with Sommes. In north-ern France alone, there are more than six different St. Germains and St. Jeans, and more than eight St. Pierres.
Beyond St. Hilaire-le-Grand we crossed the Suippe again, then swung into a Roman road with a fine, broad French roadbed which stretched away straight as a die for about twenty miles; this combination was too much for Pater and the "speed-bug bit him."
"Bobbie, I reckon the next stop is Rheims," quoth he, casting a calculating glance ahead. Up, up, went the needle till it registered fifty miles an hour; our odometer was graduated no higher, but we guessed the rest by the whistle of the wind. The towers of Rheims cathedral loomed up, and came nearer with a rush; passing into the ring of forts encircling Rheims, Bobbie slowed down for a railroad crossing and we all heaved a sigh of exaltation and—relief.
"That was bully," said Scoffy, "but if one of those front tires had gone, where would `little Willy' have been when the car got through turning somersaults ?"
"Yes, yes," chimed in the others, "that was all very fine, but "
Pater grinned, and admitted the premises though he failed to voice the conclusion. However, he promised to be good forevermore.
Hardly was this discussion concluded when the car was rolling past "whole caves of Pommery," as Scoffy remarked, and after traversing the boulevard for a bit, was threading a narrow street towards the Lion d'Or in the cathedral's shadow.
Rheims is well known to most people from child-hood; if not though Joan of Arc, at least through its fabled jackdaw. This ancient Durocortorum, capital of the Remi and of almost-German Austrasia, was Christianized as early as the third century; perhaps on this account the Remi were immortalized in the city's modern name, and the affliction of the earlier "tongue-twister" happily averted. Some people maintain that "Rance" with the proper nasal intonation is a worse infliction, but then, one may always fall back upon the poetic German pronunciation and speak of the cathedral of "Rhymes." How much more appropriate this sounds for that gray, old, storied edifice; how suggestive of the history, parables, and personifications displayed by the multitude of sculptured figures which turn its exterior into an immense open book for all to puzzle out and enjoy.
Both architecturally and historically Notre Dame de Rheims is one of the world's most famous churches. Its seven lofty spires were destroyed by fire in 1480. The nave has a single aisle on each side; the choir has a fine ambulatory with radiating chapels, forming the chevet so typical of French cathedrals. The west façade is splendid; the sides and the back of the edifice, with their walls of glass and their graceful flying but-tresses adorned with curious gargoyles, are a source of never-ceasing wonder to travelers from a land rich in money, but still poor in some of the marvels money may produce in conjunction with love of art.
From our hotel we could see the huge west front, impressive even though largely obscured by scaffolding. Nearly all the famous churches we saw in our travels had more or less restoration or renovation going on; no doubt this was necessary, but it seemed a pity, and we fervently hoped some of the artistic skill, local pride, and intense religious zeal that spurred on those old artisans and lent marvelous cunning to their chisels might, in some miraculous manner, inspire the unimaginative modern workmen.
In the interior of the church, soft light shining through the fine thirteenth century glass makes one cry out against the white light streaming in, through clear glass, where old windows had been destroyed. The walls are hung with interesting paintings and tapestries, but our view of these was rather hasty, as funeral services were about to take place. We saw the funeral procession enter the square; the cross was carried at its head, and there was what Scoffy calls an "open-faced" hearse (one without glass) preceded by choir boys and followed by the mourners, afoot. The whole proceeding was much more dignified in aspect than our usual line of hurrying carriages.
Since any further view of the interior seemed out of the question, we asked a guide to take us up into a cathedral tower. At the level of the clerestory he paused and led us upon a little gallery inside the west-ern end of the nave. Gazing down upon the solemn scene in that vast enclosure where the mourners looked like pigmies, while the choir chanted a requiem and the organ rolled and boomed echoes from the vaulted roof, we stood spellbound at its impressiveness. Then we emerged into the open air to make a tour around the roofs, midway between heaven and earth; getting intimately acquainted with the fantastic beasts upon the buttresses; traversing musty attic spaces between roof and nave-vaulting to see the ancient timber trusses ; and entering a bell-tower to hear the giant bell strike beneath our feet with a reverberation that threatened to tumble us over. I think the ladies—though they wouldn't for the world have missed it—were glad to set foot again on the town square, where Dubois' Joan of Arc holds aloft her sword and leads her endless charge to victory.
Clovis, king of the Franks, had sworn to embrace the faith of his wife Clothilde if a victory over the Alemanni were granted him; accordingly, he and three thousand of his victorious army were baptized at Rheims on Christmas Day, 496. Personally, "it didn't take"—as they say of vaccination—but the royal sanction and protection it gave to the cause of Christianity was a great stride for the good. At bottom, Christianity was not without its severely practical considerations in those days ; the sainted Remigius, who baptized Clovis, is said to have stretched the king's gift of land for an abbey at Rheims to the utmost limit. Its boundary was to be commensurate with the extent of the holy man's travels in a specified time, and all who impeded his progress or questioned his right were very brusquely treated; a string of maledictions—ranging from one which caused a bold lord's woods to wither, to that which made a stubborn miller,* wheel rise a hopeless distance from the water—marked the wake of fiery St. Remi laying out his boundaries.
His last resting place is in the abbey he prayed and quarreled for—in its church, which, though rebuilt in the twelfth century, still antedates the cathedral by a hundred years. The abbey itself is now a hôtel Dieu (hospital), the cloisters are a museum; but in the church, the saint's memory is honored by an elaborate Renaissance tomb guarded by ancient marble statues of the twelve peers of France. For when Remi baptized Clovis a dove brought consecrated oil from heaven, with which nearly all kings of France, since Hugh Capet, have been annointed at their coronation in Rheims cathedral. The coronation banquet hall, with its fine mantel and old tapestries and timbered ceiling, is in the bishop's palace south of the cathedral. Probably no glad celebration there ever equalled the popular joy at Rheims' most famous coronation—that of Charles VII, in 1429—made possible by a peasant girl of Domremy.
The venerable church of St. Remi, with its con-glomerate additions of later dates and styles, is not the city's oldest structure : the Porte de Mars, a Roman triumphal arch, is said to date from the fourth century and, despite the demolition of its superstructure, it displays a deal of fine carving. Reflections upon its antiquity made us feel the more satisfied to be living in modern times.
The Lion d'Or was very comfortable. Dining out-doors in the courtyard proved, as always, much to our taste. Scenting a diversion in the "American Bar," we proceeded to inspect it and found a well-fitted establishment with nothing lacking except—of all things !—whiskey, that staple drink and foundation of so many fancy mixtures. Discovery of the deficiency threw Scoffy into such a fit of chuckles that we began to seriously regret the absence of this "first aid to the injured," but he finally regained enough composure to walk off, murmuring, "It is to rire! It is to rire!"
The beds at this hotel were very comfortable, but were "made up" so high that Pater advised sending for a stepladder, and the Youth advocated a spring-board for diving into the feathers. Nor were modern bathrooms lacking. In fact, they had automatic water-heaters which acted with such promptness and vigor that we were much distressed at the prospect of either being parboiled or going unwashed.