How delicious to escape from the fever, heat, and turmoil of Paris during the Exhibition to the green banks and sheltered ways of the gently undulating Marne! With what delight we wake up in the morning to the noise—if noise it can be called—of the mower’s scythe, the rustle of acacia-leaves, and the notes of the stock-dove, looking back as upon a nightmare to the horn of the tramway conductor and the perpetual grind of the stonemason’s saw! Yes, to quit Paris at a time of tropic heat, and nestle down in some country resort, is, indeed, like exchanging Dante’s lower circle for Paradise. The heat has followed us here; but with a screen of luxuriant foliage ever between us and the burning blue sky, and with a breeze rippling the leaves always, no one need complain.
With the cocks and the hens, and the birds and the bees, we are all up and stirring betimes; there are dozens of cool nooks and corners, if we like to spend the morning out of doors, and do not feel enterprising enough to set out on an exploring expedition by diligence or rail. After the mid-day meal every one takes a siesta, as a matter of course, waking up between four and five o’clock for a ramble. Wherever we go we find lovely prospects. Quiet little rivers and canals, winding in between lofty lines of poplars, undulating pastures, and amber cornfields; picturesque villages, crowned by a church spire here and there; wide sweeps of highly cultivated land, interspersed with rich woods, vineyards, orchards, and gardens; all these make up the scenery familiarized to us by some of the most characteristic of French painters.
Just such tranquil rural pictures have been portrayed over and over again by Millet, Corot, Daubigny; and in this very simplicity often lies their charm. No costume or grandiose outline is here, as in Brittany; no picturesque poverty, no poetic archaisms; all is rustic and pastoral, but with the rusticity and pastoralness of every day.
We are in the midst of one of the wealthiest and best cultivated regions of France, moreover, and, when we penetrate beneath the surface, we find that in manner and customs, as well as dress and outward appearance, the peasant and agricultural population generally differ no little from their remote country-people, the Bretons. In this famous cheese-making country, the “Fromage de Brie” being the specialty of these rich dairy-farms, there is no superstition, hardly a trace of poverty, and little that can be called poetic. The people are wealthy, laborious, and progressive. The farmers’ wives, however hard they may work at home, wear the smartest of Parisian bonnets and gowns when paying visits. I was going to say, when at church, but nobody does go there!
It is a significant fact that in the fairly well-to-do educated district, where newspapers are read by the poorest, where well-being is the rule, poverty the exception, the church is empty on Sunday, and the priest’s authority is nil. The priests may preach against abstinence from church in the pulpits, and may lecture their congregation in private; no effect is thereby produced. Church-going has become out of date among the manufacturers of Brie cheese. They amuse themselves on Sundays by taking walks with their children, the pater-familias bathes in the river, the ladies put on their gala dresses and pay visits, but they omit their devotions.
Some of these tenant-farmers—many of the farms being hired on lease, possessors of small farms hiring more land—are very rich, and one of our neighbors whose wealth has been made by the manufacture of Brie cheese lately gave his daughter one hundred thousand francs as a dowry. The wedding-breakfast took place at the Grand Hotel, Paris, and a hundred guests were invited to partake of a sumptuous collation. But in spite of fine clothes and large dowries, farmers’ wives and daughters still attend to the dairies, and when they cease to do so doubtless farming in Seine et Marne will no longer be the prosperous business we find it. It is delightful to witness the wide-spread well-being of this highly-farmed region.
“There is no poverty here,” my host tells me, “and this is why life is so pleasant.”
True enough, wherever you go you find well-dressed, contented-looking people; no rags, no squalor, no pinched want. Poverty is an accident of rare occurrence, and not a normal condition, every one being able to get plenty of work and good pay. The habitual look of content written upon every face is very striking. It seems as if in this land of Goshen life were no burden, but matter of satisfaction only, if not of thankfulness. Class distinction can hardly be said to exist; there are employers and employed, masters and servants, of course, but the line of demarcation is lightly drawn, and we find an easy familiarity wholly free from impoliteness, much less vulgarity, existing between them.
The automatic demureness characterizing English servants in the presence of their employers is wholly unknown here. There are households with us where the servants might all be mutes for any signs of animation they give, but here they take part in what is going on, and exchange a word and smile with every member of the household, never dreaming that it should be otherwise. One is struck, too, here by the good looks, intelligence, and trim appearance of the children, who, it is plain, are well cared for. The houses have vines and sweet peas on the walls, flowers in the windows, and altogether a look of comfort and ease found nowhere in Western France. The Breton villages are composed of mere hovels, where pigs, cows, and poultry live in close proximity to their owners, a dung-hill stands before every front door, and, to get in-doors and out, you have always to cross a pool of liquid manure. Here order and cleanliness prevail, with a diffusion of well-being hardly, I should say, to be matched out of America.
Travellers who visit France again and again, as much out of sympathy with its people’s institutions as from a desire to see its monuments and outward features, will find ample to reward them in Seine et Marne. On every side we have evidence of the tremendous natural resources and indefatigable laboriousness of the people. There is one point here, as elsewhere in France, which strikes an agriculturist with astonishment, and that is the abundance of trees standing amid cornfields and miscellaneous crops, also the interminable plantation of poplars that can be seen on every side, apparently without any object. But the truth is, the planting of apple- and pear-trees in fields is no extravagance, rather an economy, the fruit they produce exceeding in value the corn they damage, whilst the puzzling line of poplars growing beside canals and rivers is the work of the government, every spare bit of ground belonging to the state being planted with them for the sake of the timber. The crops are splendid, partly owing to the soil, and partly to the advanced system of agriculture. You may see exposed for sale, in little towns, the newest American agricultural implements, while the great diversity of products speaks volumes for the enterprise of the farmers.
As you stroll along, now climbing, now descending this pleasantly undulated country, you may see growing in less than an acre, a patch of potatoes here, a vineyard there, on one side a bit of wheat, oats, rye, and barley, with fruit-trees casting abundant shadow over all; on the other Indian-corn, clover, and mangel-wurzel in the green state, recently planted for autumn fodder; farther on a poppy-field, three weeks ago in full flower, now having full pods ready for gathering,—the opium poppy being cultivated for commerce here. All those and many more are found close together, and near them many a lovely little glen, copse, and ravine, recalling Scotland and Wales, while the open hill-sides show broad belts of pasture, corn, and vineyard. You may walk for miles through what seems one vast orchard, only, instead of turf, rich crops are growing under the trees. This is indeed the orchard of France, on which we English folk largely depend for our summer fruits. A few days ago the black-currant-trees were being stripped for the benefit of Parisian lovers of cassis, a liqueur in high repute.
We encounter on our walks carts laden with plums packed in baskets and barrels on their way to Covent Garden. Later on, it will be the peach and apricot crops that are gathered for exportation. Later still, apples, walnuts, and pears; the village not far from our own sends fruit to the Paris markets valued at one million francs annually, and the entire valley of the Marne is unequalled throughout France for fruitfulness and abundance.
But the traveller must settle down in some delicious retreat in the valley of the Marne to realize the interest and charm of such a country as this. And he must above all things be a fairly good pedestrian, for, though a land of Goshen flowing with milk and honey, it is not a land of luxuries, and carriages, good, bad, or indifferent, are difficult to be got. A countless succession of delightful prospects is offered to the persevering explorer who, each day, strikes out in an entirely different direction. I have always been of the opinion that the best way to see a country is to make a halt in some good central point for weeks at a time, and from thence “excursionize.” By these means much fatigue is avoided, and the two chief drawbacks to the pleasure of travel, namely, hotels and perpetual railway travel, are avoided as much as possible.
Seine et Marne, if not one of the most picturesque regions in France, abounds in those quiet charms which grow upon the sympathetic traveller. It is not a land of marvels and pictorial attractions like Brittany. There is no costume, no legendary romance, no stone array of Carnac to entice the stranger, but, on the other hand, the lover of nature in her more subdued aspects, and the archæologist also, will find ample to repay them….
My rallying-point was a pleasant country house at Couilly, offering easy opportunity of studying agriculture and rural life, as well as of making excursions by road and rail. Couilly itself is charming. The canal, winding its way between thick lines of poplar-trees towards Meaux, you may follow in the hottest day of summer without fatigue. The river, narrow and sleepy, yet so picturesquely curling amid green slopes and tangled woods, is another delightful stroll; then there are broad, richly-wooded hills rising above these, and shady side-paths leading from hill to valley, with alternating vineyards, orchards, pastures, and cornfields on either side. Couilly lies in the heart of the cheese-making country, part of the ancient province of Brie, from which this famous cheese is named.
[The French département of Seine et Marne possesses but two important historical monuments, the Château of Fontainebleau and the Cathedral of Meaux, though it contains archæological remains from the Mediæval to the Celtic Age. Fontainebleau is too well known to need description here, so we shall conclude by following our traveller to Meaux.]
The diligence passes our garden gate early in the morning, and in an hour and a half takes us to Meaux, former capital of the province of La Brie, bishopric of the famous Bossuet, and one of the early strongholds of the Reformation. The neighboring country, pays Meldois as it is called, is one vast fruit and vegetable garden, bringing in enormous returns. From our vantage-ground—for, of course, we get outside the vehicle—we survey the shifting landscape, wood and valley and plain, soon seeing the city with its imposing Cathedral, flashing like marble, high above the winding river and fields of green and gold on either side. I know nothing that gives the mind an idea of fertility and wealth more than this scene, and it is no wonder that the Prussians, in 1871, here levied a heavy toll; their sojourn at Meaux having cost the inhabitants not less than a million and a half of francs. All now is peace and prosperity, and here, as in the neighboring towns, rags, want, and beggary are not found. The evident well-being of all classes is delightful to behold.
Meaux, with its shady boulevards and pleasant public gardens, must be an agreeable place to live in, nor would intellectual resources be wanting. We strolled into the spacious town library, open, of course, to all strangers, and could wish for no better occupation than to con the curious old books and the manuscripts that it contains. One incident amused me greatly. The employé, having shown me the busts adorning the walls of the principal rooms, took me into a side closet, where, ignominiously put out of sight, were the busts of Charles the Tenth and Louis Philippe.
“But,” said our informant, “we have more busts in the garret,—the Emperor Napoleon III., the Empress, and the Prince Imperial.”
Naturally enough, on the proclamation of the republic, these busts were considered at least supererogatory, and it is to be hoped they will stay where they are.