Chateau and Country Life in France

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Author of Letters Of A Diplomat’s Wife and Italian Letters of
a Diplomat’s Wife



[Illustration: A country wedding]





[Illustration: A fine old château.]



My first experience of country life in France, about thirty years ago,
was in a fine old château standing high in pretty, undulating, wooded
country close to the forest of Villers-Cotterets, and overlooking the
great plains of the Oise—big green fields stretching away to the
sky-line, broken occasionally by little clumps of wood, with steeples
rising out of the green, marking the villages and hamlets which, at
intervals, are scattered over the plains, and in the distance the blue
line of the forest. The château was a long, perfectly simple, white
stone building. When I first saw it, one bright November afternoon, I
said to my husband as we drove up, “What a charming old wooden house!”
which remark so astonished him that he could hardly explain that it
was all stone, and that no big houses (nor small, either) in France
were built of wood. I, having been born in a large white wooden house
in America, couldn’t understand why he was so horrified at my
ignorance of French architecture. It was a fine old house, high in the
centre, with a lower wing on each side. There were three
drawing-rooms, a library, billiard-room, and dining-room on the ground
floor. The large drawing-room, where we always sat, ran straight
through the house, with glass doors opening out on the lawn on the
entrance side and on the other into a long gallery which ran almost
the whole length of the house. It was always filled with plants and
flowers, open in summer, with awnings to keep out the sun; shut in
winter with glass windows, and warmed by one of the three calorifères
of the house. In front of the gallery the lawn sloped down to the
wall, which separated the place from the highroad. A belt of fine
trees marked the path along the wall and shut out the road completely,
except in certain places where an opening had been made for the view.

We were a small party for such a big house: only the proprietor and
his wife (old people), my husband and myself. The life was very
simple, almost austere. The old people lived in the centre of the
château, W.[1] and I in one of the wings. It had been all fitted up
for us, and was a charming little house. W. had the ground-floor—a
bedroom, dressing-room, cabinet de travail, dining-room, and a small
room, half reception-room, half library, where he had a large
bookcase filled with books, which he gave away as prizes or to school
libraries. The choice of the books always interested me. They were
principally translations, English and American—Walter Scott,
Marryat, Fenimore Cooper, etc. The bedroom and cabinet de travail had
glass doors opening on the park. I had the same rooms upstairs,
giving one to my maid, for I was nervous at being so far away from
anyone. M. and Mme. A. and all the servants were at the other end of
the house, and there were no bells in our wing (nor anywhere else in
the house except in the dining-room). When I wanted a work-woman who
was sewing in the lingerie I had to go up a steep little winding
staircase, which connected our wing with the main building, and walk
the whole length of the gallery to the lingerie, which was at the
extreme end of the other wing. I was very fond of my rooms. The
bedroom and sitting-room opened on a balcony with a lovely view over
wood and park. When I sat there in the morning with my petit
déjeuner—cup of tea and roll—I could see all that went on in the
place. First the keeper would appear, a tall, handsome man, rather
the northern type, with fair hair and blue eyes, his gun always over
his shoulder, sacoche at his side, swinging along with the free,
vigorous step of a man accustomed to walk all day. Then Hubert, the
coachman, would come for orders, two little fox-terriers always
accompanying him, playing and barking, and rolling about on the
grass. Then the farmer’s wife, driving herself in her gig, and
bringing cheese, butter, milk, and sometimes chickens when our
bassecour was getting low. A little later another lot would appear,
people from the village or canton, wanting to see their deputy and
have all manner of grievances redressed. It was curious sometimes to
make out, at the end of a long story, told in peasant dialect, with
many digressions, what particular service notre député was expected
to render. I was present sometimes at some of the conversations, and
was astounded at W.’s patience and comprehension of what was
wanted—I never understood half.

[1] W. here and throughout this volume refers to Mme. Waddington’s
husband, M. William Waddington.

We generally had our day to ourselves. We rode almost every
morning—long, delicious gallops in the woods, the horses going easily
and lightly over the grass roads; and the days W. was away and
couldn’t ride, I used to walk about the park and gardens. The kitchen
garden was enormous—almost a park in itself—and in the season I eat
pounds of white grapes, which ripened to a fine gold color on the
walls in the sun. We rarely saw M. and Mme. A. until twelve-o’clock

[Illustration: I loved to hear her play Beethoven and Handel.]

Sometimes when it was fine we would take a walk with the old people
after breakfast, but we generally spent our days apart. M. and Mme. A.
were charming people, intelligent, cultivated, reading everything and
keeping quite in touch with all the literary and Protestant world, but
they had lived for years entirely in the country, seeing few people,
and living for each other. The first evenings at the château made a
great impression upon me. We dined at 7:30, and always sat after
dinner in the big drawing-room. There was one lamp on a round table in
the middle of the room (all the corners shrouded in darkness). M. and
Mme. A. sat in two arm-chairs opposite to each other, Mme. A. with a
green shade in front of her. Her eyes were very bad; she could neither
read nor work. She had been a beautiful musician, and still played
occasionally, by heart, the classics. I loved to hear her play
Beethoven and Handel, such a delicate, old-fashioned touch. Music was
at once a bond of union. I often sang for her, and she liked
everything I sang—Italian stornelli, old-fashioned American negro
songs, and even the very light modern French chansonnette, when there
was any melody in them. There were two other arm-chairs at the table,
destined for W. and me. I will say W. never occupied his. He would sit
for about half an hour with M. A. and talk politics or local matters
with him, but after that he departed to his own quarters, and I
remained with the old people. I felt very strange at first, it was so
unlike anything I had ever seen, so different from my home life, where
we were a happy, noisy family, always one of the party, generally two,
at the piano, everybody laughing, talking, and enjoying life, and
always a troop of visitors, cousins innumerable and friends.

It was a curious atmosphere. I can’t say dull exactly, for both M. and
Mme. A. were clever, and the discussions over books, politics, and
life generally, were interesting, but it was serious, no vitality,
nothing gay, no power of enjoyment. They had had a great grief in
their lives in the loss of an only daughter,[2] which had left
permanent traces. They were very kind and did their best to make me
feel at home, and after the first few evenings I didn’t mind. M. A.
had always been in the habit of reading aloud to his wife for an hour
every evening after dinner—the paper, an article in one of the
reviews, anything she liked. I liked that, too, and as I felt more at
home used to discuss everything with M. A. He was quite horrified one
evening when I said I didn’t like Molière, didn’t believe anybody did
(particularly foreigners), unless they had been brought up to it.

[2] W.’s first wife.

It really rather worried him. He proposed to read aloud part of the
principal plays, which he chose very carefully, and ended by making a
regular cours de Molière. He read charmingly, with much spirit,
bringing out every touch of humour and fancy, and I was obliged to say
I found it most interesting. We read all sorts of things besides
Molière—Lundis de Ste.-Beuve, Chateaubriand, some splendid pages on
the French Revolution, Taine, Guizot, Mme. de Staël, Lamartine, etc.,
and sometimes rather light memoirs of the Régence and the light ladies
of the eighteenth century, who apparently mixed up politics, religion,
literature, and lovers in the most simple style. These last readings
he always prepared beforehand, and I was often surprised at sudden
transitions and unfinished conversations which meant that he had
suppressed certain passages which he judged too improper for general

He read, one evening, a charming feuilleton of George Sand. It began:
“Le Baron avait causé politique toute la soirée,” which conversation
apparently so exasperated the baronne and a young cousin that they
wandered out into the village, which they immediately set by the ears.
The cousin was an excellent mimic of all animals’ noises. He barked so
loud and so viciously that he started all the dogs in the village, who
went nearly mad with excitement, and frightened the inhabitants out of
their wits. Every window was opened, the curé, the garde champêtre,
the school-master, all peering out anxiously into the night, and
asking what was happening. Was it tramps, or a travelling circus, or a
bear escaped from his showman, or perhaps a wolf? I have wished
sometimes since, when I have heard various barons talking politics,
that I, too, could wander out into the night and seek distraction

It was a serious life in the big château. There was no railway
anywhere near, and very little traffic on the highroad. After
nightfall a mantle of silence seemed to settle on the house and park
that absolute silence of great spaces where you almost hear your own
heart beat. W. went to Paris occasionally, and usually came back by
the last train, getting to the château at midnight. I always waited
for him upstairs in my little salon, and the silence was so oppressive
that the most ordinary noise—a branch blowing across a window-pane,
or a piece of charred wood falling on the hearth—sounded like a
cannon shot echoing through the long corridor. It was a relief when I
heard the trot of his big mare at the top of the hill, quite fifteen
minutes before he turned into the park gates. He has often told me how
long and still the evenings and nights were during the Franco-Prussian
War. He remained at the château all through the war with the old
people. After Sedan almost the whole Prussian army passed the château
on their way to Versailles and Paris. The big white house was seen
from a long distance, so, as soon as it was dark, all the wooden
shutters on the side of the highroad were shut, heavy curtains drawn,
and strict orders given to have as little light as possible. He was
sitting in his library one evening about dusk, waiting for the man to
bring his lamp and shut the shutters, having had a trying day with the
peasants, who were all frightened and nervous at the approach of the
Germans. He was quite absorbed in rather melancholy reflections when
he suddenly felt that someone was looking in at the window (the
library was on the ground-floor, with doors and windows opening on the
park). He rose quickly, going to the window, as he thought one of the
village people wanted to speak to him, and was confronted by a
Pickelhaube and a round German face flattened against the window-pane.
He opened the window at once, and the man poured forth a torrent of
German, which W. fortunately understood. While he was talking W. saw
forms, their muskets and helmets showing out quite distinctly in the
half-light, crossing the lawn and coming up some of the broad paths.
It was a disagreeable sight, which he was destined to see many times.

It was wonderful what exact information the Germans had. They knew all
the roads, all the villages and little hamlets, the big châteaux, and
most of the small mills and farms. There were still traces of the
German occupation when I went to that part of the country; on some of
the walls and houses marks in red paint—”4 Pferde, 12 Männer.” They
generally wanted food and lodging, which they usually (not always)
paid for. Wherever they found horses they took them, but M. A. and W.
had sent all theirs away except one saddle-horse, which lived in a
stable in the woods near the house. In Normandy, near Rouen, at my
brother-in-law’s place, they had German officers and soldiers
quartered for a long time. They instantly took possession of horses
and carriages, and my sister-in-law, toiling up a steep hill, would be
passed by her own carriage and horses filled with German officers.
However, on the whole, W. said, the Germans, as a victorious invading
army, behaved well, the officers always perfectly polite, and keeping
their men in good order. They had all sorts and kinds at the château.
They rarely remained long—used to appear at the gate in small bands
of four or five, with a sous-officier, who always asked to see either
the proprietor or someone in authority. He said how many men and
horses he wanted lodged and fed, and announced the arrival, a little
later, of several officers to dine and sleep. They were always
received by M. A. or W., and the same conversation took place every
time. They were told the servant would show them their rooms, and
their dinner would be served at any hour they wished. They replied
that they would have the honour of waiting upon the ladies of the
family as soon as they had made a little toilette and removed the dust
of the route, and that they would be very happy to dine with the
family at their habitual hour. They were then told that the ladies
didn’t receive, and that the family dined alone. They were always
annoyed at that answer. As a rule they behaved well, but occasionally
there would be some rough specimens among the officers.

W. was coming home one day from his usual round just before nightfall,
when he heard loud voices and a great commotion in the hall—M. A. and
one or two German officers. The old man very quiet and dignified, the
Germans most insulting, with threats of taking him off to prison. W.
interfered at once, and learned from the irate officers what was the
cause of the quarrel. They had asked for champagne (with the usual
idea of foreigners that champagne flowed through all French châteaux),
and M. A. had said there was none in the house. They knew better, as
some of their men had seen champagne bottles in the cellar. W. said
there was certainly a mistake—there was none in the house. They again
became most insolent and threatening—said they would take them both
to prison. W. suggested, wouldn’t it be better to go down the cellar
with him? Then they could see for themselves there was none.
Accordingly they all adjourned to the cellar and W. saw at once what
had misled them—a quantity of bottles of eau de Seidlitz, rather like
champagne bottles in shape. They pointed triumphantly to these and
asked what he meant by saying there was no champagne, and told their
men to carry off the bottles. W. said again it was not champagne—he
didn’t believe they would like it. They were quite sure they had found
a prize, and all took copious draughts of the water—with disastrous
results, as they heard afterward from the servants.

Later, during the armistice and Prussian occupation, there were
soldiers quartered all around the château, and, of course, there were
many distressing scenes. All our little village of Louvry, near our
farm, had taken itself off to the woods. They were quite safe there,
as the Prussians never came into the woods on account of the
sharpshooters. W. said their camp was comfortable enough—they had all
their household utensils, beds, blankets, donkeys, and goats, and
could make fires in the clearing in the middle of the woods. They were
mostly women and children, only a very few old men and young boys
left. The poor things were terrified by the Germans and Bismarck, of
whom they had made themselves an extraordinary picture. “Monsieur sait
que Bismarck tue tous les enfants pour qu’il n’y ait plus de
Français.” (Monsieur knows that Bismarck kills all the children so
that there shall be no more French.) The boys kept W. in a fever. They
had got some old guns, and were always hovering about on the edge of
the wood, trying to have a shot at a German. He was very uncomfortable
himself at one time during the armistice, for he was sending off
parties of recruits to join one of the big corps d’armée in the
neighbourhood, and they all passed at the château to get their money
and feuille de route, which was signed by him. He sent them off in
small bands of four or five, always through the woods, with a line to
various keepers and farmers along the route, who could be trusted, and
would help them to get on and find their way. Of course, if anyone of
them had been taken with W.’s signature and recommendation on him, the
Germans would have made short work of W., which he was quite aware of;
so every night for weeks his big black Irish horse Paddy was saddled
and tied to a certain tree in one of the narrow alleys of the big
park—the branches so thick and low that it was difficult to pass in
broad daylight, and at night impossible, except for him who knew every
inch of the ground. With five minutes’ start, if the alarm had been
given, he could have got away into his own woods, where he knew no one
would follow him.

Hubert, the old coachman, used often to talk to me about all that
troubled time. When the weather was dark and stormy he used to stay
himself half the night, starting at every sound, and there are so many
sounds in the woods at night, all sorts of wild birds and little
animals that one never hears in the daytime—sometimes a rabbit would
dart out of a hole and whisk round a corner; sometimes a big buse
(sort of eagle) would fly out of a tree with great flapping of wings;
occasionally a wild-cat with bright-green eyes would come stealthily
along and then make a flying leap over the bushes. His nerves were so
unstrung that every noise seemed a danger, and he had visions of
Germans lying in ambush in the woods, waiting to pounce upon W. if he
should appear. He said Paddy was so wise, seemed to know that he must
be perfectly quiet, never kicked nor snorted.

It was impossible to realise those dreadful days when we were riding
and walking in the woods, so enchanting in the early summer, with
thousands of lilies of the valley and periwinkles growing wild, and a
beautiful blue flower, a sort of orchid. We used to turn all the
village children into the woods, and they picked enormous bunches of
lilies, which stood all over the château in china bowls. I loved the
wood life at all seasons. I often made the round with W. and his
keepers in the autumn when he was preparing a battue. The men were
very keen about the game, knew the tracks of all the animals, showing
me the long narrow rabbit tracks, running a long distance toward the
quarries, which were full of rabbit holes, and the little delicate
hoof-marks of the chevreuil (roe-deer) just where he had jumped across
the road. The wild boar was easy to trace—little twigs broken, and
ferns and leaves quite crushed, where he had passed. The wild boars
and stags never stayed very long in our woods—went through merely to
the forest of Villers-Cotterets—so it was most important to know the
exact moment of their passage, and there was great pride and
excitement when one was taken.

Another interesting moment was when the coupe de l’année was being
made. Parts of the woods were cut down regularly every year, certain
squares marked off. The first day’s work was the marking of the big
trees along the alleys which were to remain—a broad red ring around
the trunks being very conspicuous. Then came the thinning of the
trees, cutting off the top branches, and that was really a curious
sight. The men climbed high into the tree, and then hung on to the
trunk with iron clamps on their feet, with points which stuck into the
bark, and apparently gave them a perfectly secure hold, but it looked
dangerous to see them swinging off from the trunk with a sort of axe
in their hands, cutting off the branches with a swift, sharp stroke.
When they finally attacked the big trees that were to come down it was
a much longer affair, and they made slow progress. They knew their
work well, the exact moment when the last blow had been given, and
they must spring aside to get out of the way when the tree fell with a
great crash.

There were usually two or three big battues in November for the
neighbouring farmers and small proprietors. The breakfast always took
place at the keeper’s house. We had arranged one room as a
dining-room, and the keeper’s wife was a very good cook; her omelette
au lard and civet de lièvre, classic dishes for a shooting breakfast,
were excellent. The repast always ended with a galette aux amandes
made by the chef of the château. I generally went down to the kennels
at the end of the day, and it was a pretty sight when the party
emerged from the woods, first the shooters, then a regiment of beaters
(men who track the game), the game cart with a donkey bringing up the
rear—the big game, chevreuil or boar, at the bottom of the cart, the
hares and rabbits hanging from the sides. The sportsmen all came back
to the keeper’s lodge to have a drink before starting off on their
long drive home, and there was always a great discussion over the
entries in the game book and the number of pièces each man had killed.
It was a very difficult account to make, as every man counted many
more rabbits than the trackers had found, so they were obliged to make
an average of the game that had been brought in. When all the guests
had departed it was killing to hear the old keeper’s criticisms.

[Illustration: There were all sorts and kinds.]

Another important function was a large breakfast to all the mayors,
conseillers d’arrondissement, and rich farmers of W.’s canton. That
always took place at the château, and Mme. A. and I appeared at table.
There were all sorts and kinds—some men in dress coats and white
gloves, some very rough specimens in corduroys and thick-nailed shoes,
having begun life as garçons de ferme (ploughboys). They were all
intelligent, well up in politics, and expressed themselves very well,
but I think, on the whole, they were pleased when Mme. A. and I
withdrew and they went into the gallery for their coffee and cigars.
Mme. A. was extraordinarily easy—talked to them all. They came in
exactly the same sort of equipage, a light, high, two-wheeled trap
with a hood, except the Mayor of La Ferté, our big town, who came in
his victoria.

I went often with W. to some of the big farms to see the
sheep-shearing and the dairies, and cheese made. The farmer’s wife in
France is a very capable, hard-working woman—up early, seeing to
everything herself, and ruling all her carters and ploughboys with a
heavy hand. Once a week, on market day, she takes her cheeses to the
market town, driving herself in her high gig, and several times I have
seen some of them coming home with a cow tied to their wagon behind,
which they had bought at the market. They were always pleased to see
us, delighted to show anything we wanted to see, offered us
refreshment—bread and cheese, milk and wine—but never came to see me
at the château. I made the round of all the châteaux with Mme. A. to
make acquaintance with the neighbours. They were all rather far off,
but I loved the long drives, almost always through the forest, which
was quite beautiful in all seasons, changing like the sea. It was
delightful in midsummer, the branches of the big trees almost meeting
over our heads, making a perfect shade, and the long, straight, green
alleys stretching away before us, as far as we could see. When the
wood was a little less thick, the afternoon sun would make long
zigzags of light through the trees and trace curious patterns upon the
hard white road when we emerged occasionally for a few minutes from
the depths of the forest at a cross-road. It was perfectly still, but
summer stillness, when one hears the buzzing and fluttering wings of
small birds and insects, and is conscious of life around one.

The most beautiful time for the forest is, of course, in the autumn.
October and November are lovely months, with the changing foliage, the
red and yellow almost as vivid as in America, and always a foreground
of moss and brown ferns, which grow very thick and high all through
the forest. We used to drive sometimes over a thick carpet of red and
yellow leaves, hardly hearing the horses’ hoofs or the noise of the
wheels, and when we turned our faces homeward toward the sunset there
was really a glory of colour in wood and sky. It was always curiously
lonely—we rarely met anything or anyone, occasionally a group of
wood-cutters or boys exercising dogs and horses from the
hunting-stables of Villers-Cotterets. At long intervals we would come
to a keeper’s lodge, standing quite alone in the middle of the forest,
generally near a carrefour where several roads met. There was always a
small clearing—garden and kennels, and a perfectly comfortable house,
but it must be a lonely life for the women when their husbands are off
all day on their rounds. I asked one of them once, a pretty, smiling
young woman who always came out when the carriage passed, with three
or four children hanging to her skirts, if she was never afraid, being
alone with small children and no possibility of help, if any drunkards
or evilly disposed men came along. She said no—that tramps and
vagabonds never came into the heart of the forest, and always kept
clear of the keeper’s house, as they never knew where he and his gun
might be. She said she had had one awful night with a sick child. She
was alone in the house with two other small children, almost babies,
while her husband had to walk several miles to get a doctor. The long
wait was terrible. I got to know all the keepers’ wives on our side of
the forest quite well, and it was always a great interest to them when
we passed on horseback, so few women rode in that part of France in
those days.

Sometimes, when we were in the heart of the forest, a stag with

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