A Tour on Wheels in 1886 (chapter IV)

Chapter IV

But all the glory has departed. The forest of Compiegne is let out in lots to sportsmen. The chalet of the Empress, from the tower of which she shot the stag, is silent and dismantled. The avenue planned by Napoleon I., which leads in a broad sweep from the chateau to Beaugency, no longer echoes the prancing hoofs or is resplendent with gorgeous liveries. The charity of the Empress is missed in the surrounding villages. The palace of Louis XV is turned into a museum, the flower-gardens are still kept up, the band plays on Sunday, but the life is gone out of the place. Memories haunt us, as we saunter in the streets or in the forest, of young brides of France brought here for their honeymoon who ended in a coil of trouble; of Marie Antoinette received here by Louis XV.; of Marie Louise hurried hither prematurely by Napoleon; and finally, of the last gracious, occupant of the chateau, who, in her many recollections, can have few which are so bright as the fair days of Compiegne. The town is sunk in the dullness of French provincial life. There is no food for the higher nature—no literature, no art, no music; nothing but the army, the cafe, and the indecent novel, and the soil in which these ill weeds grow. There is a direct road from Chalons to Soissoos, which, passing at first through the forest of Compiegne, runs to the south of the river Aisne, and ends in that long line bordered with poplars which is so familiar an object to travellers in France. We were well advised in turning to the left, crossing the river at Francport, and following an older and more humble track. The scenery is lovely. Below us lie the quiet pools and reaches of the Aisne, with woody hills rising on the further bank. We are constantly reminded of the Thames, sometimes of the peaceful stretches of old Windsor and Ankerwyke, sometimes of the woods of Bisham. The villages through which we pass are composed of solid stone houses, with many appearances of comfort and prosperity. The village church is generally worth a visit, as it exhibits the rude Romanesque work of the twelfth century, or the richer tracery of the thirteenth or fourteenth. We halt for lunch at Vic-sur-Aisne, at the hospitable inn of La Croix d’Or. On the other side of the square is an old dungeon-keep, flanked by round towers, the remains of the strong chateau of the Clouet family, who have been lords of the manor for” three centuries. Behind the dungeon is the more modern residence, with a large tangled garden laid out in the style of the last century, and a terraced walk overlooking the river. At this point we crossed the bridge and rejoined the main road; but a long stretch of pave was in store for us, and we should have done better to have made our whole journey through the villages on the left bank. Soissons, like many French cities, has a large cathedral and a large abbey. They are placed, like St Paul’s and Westminster Abbey, at different ends of the town.  This is the case also at Laon, at Rheims, at Rouen, and at Metz. The cathedral of Soissons is extremely impressive for the unity of purpose with which it has been conceived and constructed. It dates from the thirteenth century, the high-water mark of French Gothic architecture. It differs also from many of its sister churches by having been executed in a comparatively short space of time. Its whole construction did not extend over more than a hundred and fifty years. The cathedral stands complete, but the Abbey of St John in the Vineyards was destroyed in the Revolution. Nothing remains of it but two gigantic towers, a landmark to the surrounding country, which rise on each side of the richly carved portal—and a fragment of the thirteenth century cloister, which can only be seen from the platform of the tower. The present Republic restores churches at the public expense, but it can never replace what the first Republic wantonly devoted to destruction. On entering the cathedral by the great west door are seen two kneeling figures of nuns in painted marble. One of them is Marie de Rochefoucauld, and the other Henriette de Lorraine d’Elbeuf. They were both of them abbesses of the royal convent of Notre Dame, and are splendid types of the union of piety and culture, of courtly manners and simplicity of life, which distinguished the Church of France before the cataclysm which destroyed it. If the traveller wishes to see the halls in which these princesses lived, and the building which they ruled over, he will find nothing but a modern barrack, full, as it was when we saw it, of reluctant recruits. There is yet another Abbey at Soissons which has played a great part in history, St Medard, in which Pepin was crowned, and Louis le Debonnaire imprisoned. Very little remains of it except the subterranean vault which contains the prison of that unfortunate king. Its seven churches have disappeared, and it is now a school for the deaf, dumb, and blind.

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