A Tour upon Wheels in 1886 (chapter VIII)

posted by Stephen Channing on September 5, 2014 .

Chapter VIII

At Chalons one is already in the clutches of the destiny which closed with such fatal effect round the royal travellers to Varennes in 1791. The king thought if he could once pass Chalqns he would be safe. He was recognised, indeed, as he changed horses, but his prudent major advised that nothing should be said about the matter. The post-house at which the royal family stopped still exists, the residence of the general in command of the forces. The stone pave begins there to slope slightly upwards; and we can imagine how the leaders of the six horses stumbled, broke their traces and had to be replaced —an interruption to the journey, and a bad omen for success. At the other side of the town are two mournful memorials — the triumphal arch built for the first reception of Marie Antoinette on her arrival from Germany, with the royal lilies of France on one side and the united shields of France and Lorraine on the other; and the beautiful little prefecture, a perfect specimen of the domestic architecture of the late ancien regime. Under this ,arch the queen passed for the last time, on her return from Varennes surrounded by seething crowds who might have offered violence had the carriage entered the town by the ordinary route, and in the prefecture she was lodged a prisoner— the first night of that lingering confinement which was only to terminate with the scaffold. This was also a favourite sojourn of Napoleon III when he visited the camp of Chalons, and it once or twice afforded a lodging to Napoleon I. A short distance out of the town is the picturesque church of the Holy Thorn, built to cover with a worthy shrine a sacred picture and a holy well. The church is an interesting specimen of late and rather florid Gothic, scarcely worthy of the praise which Victor Hugo has so lavishly bestowed upon it. The most interesting feature of it is a delicate little chapel on the south side of the choir. We gazed at the picture, or rather as much of it as was visible through obtrusive ornaments and ex-votos, and we drank of the water of the well, which was exceedingly good. We wished solemnly as we drank, and who knows if one’s wishes will not be fulfilled! We continued our journey with the thought of the royal pair continually in our minds, and arrived eventually at Font-Summevesle, about twelve miles from Chalons. This momentous spot, where Choiseul waited during a summer day for the coming of the royal berlin, and, worn out with impatience, rode away just at the time when his royal naster was leaving Chalons, is described by Carlyle as a village, and called by him Pont de Sommevelle. It is not a village, but a farmhouse, with another house opposite to it, once an inn. It lies in a deep ravine, surrounded by trees. It is hard to see why it was made a post-station, except that the road from Rheims falls in a little higher up, and the villages of Courtisols and Sommevesle lie to the right of the road. The buildings of 1791 are still to be seen. It is difficult to understand why Choiseul should not have remained in this desert spot until nightfall. Had he been patient for two hours longer, the king would have been saved. After this, the interest of the roads grew thicker. A sign-post is passed upon the left with the inscription, “Valmy 5 kilometres.” We resist the temptation to follow it, and continue on our course, the ease and delightfulness of which it would have been a pity to interrupt. Soon the monument of Valmy comes into sight, taking the place of the famous windmill. On the summit of a cote we find ourselves close to the inn of La Lune, occupied during the battle by the Duke of Brunswick, and very near the spot whence Goethe rode forward to taste the dangerous rapture of the cannon-fever. The battle of Valmy is difficult to understand, because the French were posted between the Prussians and the frontier, and the Prussians between the French and Paris. But it was not a battle, it was a canonade. The Prussians thought that the undisciplined French would break and run at the first volley of grape-shot. They stood to their position, and thus, as Goethe had the insight to perceive, inaugurated a new era in the history of Europe. The Prussians seized the position of Valmy the next day, and could, if energetically led, have marched on to Paris, where they would have met with little resistance. But the rain had fallen and made the roads impassable; bread failed, ammunition failed, and the Allies were uncertain as to what they should do. To conquer Paris with a crowd of emigres would be embarrassing: it were better to hold the balance, and if possible to bring Louis XVI into Dumouriez’s camp. First inaction followed, then retreat, and the French pressed on so vigorously that the retreat became a route. A slight detour brought us in sight of the village of Valmy, which lay peacefully in the sunlight, unconscious of its reputation. The village schoolmaster, whom we met, complained of his scanty income; knew that a battle had at once been fought there, but could tell us nothing of its details.

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