Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/Saumur
LES PIERRES COUVERTES. LE CARROUSEL.
I retraced my steps in order to see Saumur, of the beauty of whose site and of whose cheapness I had heard marvels. I was disappointed in both. Saumur, partly built on the rocks overhanging the Loire, and its handsome long stone bridge, white houses of Tufa stone, intermixed with green foliage, with here and there church spires, and quaint old towers rising from among them, and on the topmost heights the strong castle frowning above all, is pretty, rather than strikingly beautiful. A long line of windmills reaches from the castle, crowning the wooded banks of the river. I am not like a certain Yorkshire lady, who said the view from her window wanted nothing but a windmill to make it perfect. To me, these innumerable mills spoil the grace of the picture; however, there they are, and I must mention them, for they are a distinguishing feature of the place. The Loire is very inferior in beauty to the Wye, the Wharfe, and a thousand other less-famed English rivers, whose banks are infinitely more steep and romantic, and more richly fringed with umbrageous trees: and at this time of the year it is disfigured by immense sand-banks, which divide it into numerous shallow streams.
Entering the town from the chemin de fer, I crossed the bridge. Before me lay a wide, handsome street, traversing the whole length of the town, the road continuing in one straight line up a green avenue of trees and across a smaller bridge (Pont Fouchard), through the faubourg of the same name, till it was lost to sight as it sloped straight upwards and onwards in a second long green avenue, whose distant tree-tops closed-in the distance. This one handsome main-street, beginning and ending in leafy verdure, seems common in France, and it certainly gives an air of grandeur to the town, which is not justified by the reality. My first care was to seek for lodgings, hotels being too dear for a spinster’s purse. I made many inquiries in the shops, but was told I should find none. To save others similar trouble, I advise them at once to go to the quartier St. Nicholas, near the Ecole de Cavalerie, or about the Rue du Collége. There are plenty in both neighbourhoods. I hired pleasant rooms, au premier, numero 70 Bis, Rue St. Nicholas. There is a small terrace, trellised over with flowers, on the first landing, and my apartment is so thoroughly French, and so unlike English cheap lodgings, I must describe it. My cabinet de toilette is a small room; but the bed, standing in a recess, shadowed by white curtains, leaves an ample space. Against the closed fire-place are my washing utensils, on an unpainted wooden table, washed clean every morning. I find this more convenient and cleaner than the English wash-stands, with their cracked, discoloured, half-washed paint. Over the chimney-piece hangs a mirror against the wall. Swing looking-glasses are only used by great people. From my window I look out upon an old tower of singular form and curious construction, whose use and history are unknown. It is conjectured, however, to have served at some distant date as a phare, or lighthouse. A number of gentlemen have been lately sent through France to sketch all antique monuments, and this among them. The stones of which it is built are so placed as to lay like tiles, one over the other—all sloping and regularly diminishing to the top. Beyond it is a pretty garden, and a house au fond, where lodge some officers. My salon opens with large French windows on to a balcony with oleanders, and a Persian lilac tree, flowering now for the second time. There is none of the vulgarity of an English lodging in a back street in London about it. I have a long settee with two large cushions, two fauteuils, and an easy chair of mahogany, covered with scarlet damask, two rush chairs, and a small round walnut-tree centre table covered with a scarlet and black cloth. There is the usual commode of mahogany, with its deep drawers and grey marble top, for my clothes; and besides these a mahogany placard, or cupboard, where I keep my eatables, with its door of plate-glass, which serves me as a cheval glass, in which I can see myself from head to foot. The chimney-piece is of brownish marble, and the open chimney has no grate, only two iron dogs with the usual sphinx-heads, for confining the wood fire. Sur la cheminée stands a very beautiful ormolu clock which strikes the hours, under a glass shade; and two handsome large china vases of elegant form, which I always keep filled with fresh flowers. I can buy a large bouquet for a sou. There are none of the vulgar little trumpery china baskets, dogs with three legs, glass ships, and other horrors, which make lodgings in England seem so vulgar. On each side the chimney-piece are two large cupboards in the wainscot, for wood and coals in winter, or clothes in summer. The paper is of French grey and white, relieved by a dead gold-brown border, and both rooms are carpeted with what we should call a stair-carpet, which is a marvel in itself for the manner in which it has been mended in the stitch. I pay at the rate of thirty-five francs a month to Madame Bayot and Je m’y trouve bien. But it must be understood French landladies do not cook for lodgers. They “mount” my café, and keep my rooms in order, that is all. Red coats and green coats, dark blue coats and light blue coats, laced with silver and gold, gleam beneath the trees like fire-flies, and loom from every balcony and window. I have two officiers for my left-hand neighbours, one on my right, and half-a-dozen en face. In fact, les officiers are the life of Saumur.
But for the École de Cavalerie, the few dear, bad shops might shut up; and instead of there being as now, “à vendre à l’aimable,” or “à louer présentement,” posted on one-fifth of the houses in the town, one large affiche, “Saumur to be sold or let,” might be put up. There is no life in the streets. Nobody ever seems to enter those dreary, miserable-looking shops—and indeed I do not wonder. The people of Saumur generally seem to look upon a stray visitor as a gold-mine to be exploitée to their profit; and if you demand the price of any article, calculate how much you may be fool enough to give. Yesterday I was asked eight sous (fourpence) for a ball of cotton, its real price being three at most. The people here have a way of their own—neither like English life, nor that of any other French towns—owing, it is said, to the officers living chiefly en pension, eight or ten taking their meals together in a house, where no other person is admitted. There are no restaurants where one can get a cheap and good dinner. When the editor of the “Times” said, during the Crimean war, that the French were “born cooks,” he could never have heard of Saumur. I wish he had had my goose for dinner, that’s all. I was tired of dining on melons, peaches, bread, and sour wine; and seeing an old woman under a tree at Pont Fouchard, with geese and half-geese and quarter-geese to sell, I desired Madame Bayot to buy me half a goose. She came, exultant to show me what a fine one she had got, soon afterwards. I looked at it in horror. It was not half picked; large downy feathers and multitudes of pens were sticking in it; nor could it now be picked, inasmuch as it was jointed across the back and breast bone in five or six places, so that it more resembled a neck of mutton covered with flue, than anything birdlike. The bones and shank of the legs, and the pinions, had been cut off to be sold separately; so that, in fact, I had half a breast, half a back, and half of each limb only. Its price was twenty-six sous, and in the state described it was sent to a little woman next door,—who keeps a pension for soldiers, and who has twice made me very good omelettes with meat in them,—to be cooked, with strong injunctions as to plucking it free of feathers. In about half an hour it returned, surrounded by potatoes, and swimming in a sea of melted lard. It had been sent to the four and baked, and it tasted of grease and fish, and oil and burnt feathers, and was as hard as if it had been part of an antediluvian goose that had been in the Ark; impossible to masticate or eat it; and even Keeper despised it, and played at ball with the bits given him, which he threw up in the air, and then caught as he lay on his back rolling about, which is his way of signifying supreme contempt for any food that does not happen to please him. Talk of all the French being “born cooks,” indeed? Why, everybody nearly (except the rich folks and the hotels), cooks his meat in the bakers’ ovens! I poured off the oleaginous matter; I skinned what remained, and gave the skin to Keeper, who ate it disdainfully; and next day I requested it might be stewed as a ragout with a teacupful of water. In half an hour the petite femme brought it back, assuring me it was quite hot, and well done, as it had been well boiled. Of course it was only half warm, and as hard, or harder, than ever. Who ever heard of letting a stew boil? I gave it up in despair, and somehow managed to eat it; but let nobody ever tell me again that the French are all “born cooks”! The fact is, cooking is a very difficult affair in a Saumur house. There is neither stove, nor range; nothing but a few sticks placed on a hearth, gipsey fashion, and not the gipsey’s covered kettle to cook with. Wood is very dear, and the ménagère calculates the cost of every stick she burns. Even if one paid her, she could not find in her heart to consume wood enough to cook any dish properly,—she would consider it a sinful waste. No doubt in the houses ou l’on tient pension pour les officiers, it is different. I speak of the mode of life among the bourgeoisie, or middling class, and of the inconveniences any one living in lodgings, and unable from want of means to dine at the hotels, where there is a table d’hôte, must expect to meet. A French ménage seems very simple; and in very truth I believe there is no sort of necessity for the innumerable kitchen articles we have in England. Half a dozen knives and forks, a covered casserole to make the indispensable soup in, a few pots and dishes of various sizes, and six dessert spoons, seem all that is necessary. I do not think there are above a dozen plates in this house, for I find great difficulty in getting a sufficient number at breakfast and tea-time. The boiled milk comes up in a tin saucepan, and they seem to wonder I insist on a plate to rest it on, instead of dirtying my breakfast napkin by placing the smoky pan upon it. However, both here and at Tours I have been fortunate in my landladies: I ask for everything civilly, and I get all I want. It would be a great saving of expense to all these householders, if the cuisine customary in Paris were adopted. There, there is in every kitchen an iron stove, with a small square grating in the midst for fire, which is rarely used; and round it six or eight little hollows, varying from the size of a wine-glass top to a saucer, in which a little lighted charcoal is placed, and then the article to be cooked, being properly prepared, and set over it in a covered earthenware pan, may be safely left to cook itself. It can neither burn nor spoil. You may go all over Paris, and when you come back find your dinner of soup and five or six dishes, all done to a turn. Dressing a dinner seems no trouble there.
I have had bad weather nearly ever since I came to Saumur; but the first fine day I went to visit Les Pierres Couvertes, the Dolmen of Pontigné, about a mile from Saumur, beyond Pont Fouchard, in a village to the left, called Bagnieu. It stands in a little croft belonging to some labourers, and a few sous are usually asked for showing it. The people were all absent, so I went in, and saw it for myself. Murray says it measures eighty feet in length: I should not have guessed it to be so long: but, at any rate, the interior, which is used as a stable and barn, is larger than my salon, which is a good-sized room. The walls consist of upright slabs of unhewn stone, with others of the same kind placed athwart them for a roof. I made a rough sketch of one end, because it best showed the immense size of the stones, which would be difficult to move even in the present day, with all our complicated and powerful machinery. Murray says, “the blocks forming it are sandstone found in this district, but not near at hand, or near the surface.” I am not a geologist; but they struck me as being of granite, a dark grey, close-grained stone, of which I found large blocks lying very near the surface, less than half a mile off.
There is another smaller pierre couverte consisting of fewer stones, on what is called les terres fortes, among the vineyards on the hill above. The old road between Douai and Saumur, looking like a ravine, runs just below it. Here I sat and made a rough sketch of the Menhir, and admired the beautiful panoramic view opposite of Saumur and its majestic castle, white tower, and the neighbouring plains, where woods and houses and fields were all intermingled till they melted finally into the blue haze; and thought that if I were rich and wished to settle at Saumur, here I would build for myself a resting-place. A labouring man came up from the old road and joined me, asking if I did not admire the panorama. I told him what I thought.—“Ah,” said he “il n’y a que les Anglais pour faire cela,”—a Frenchman only thinks of what his terres will bring him in—he would never build a house here for a view—“mais c’est beau tout de même.,” I inquired the way to Rion, where there whs another pierre couverte, and he said he was going there, but the stones were at Rou, about half a lieue further still. So we walked on together, talking as we went. He was a man of the ordinary French peasant type, in blue blouse, blue linen trousers, naked feet, and wooden shoes or sabots, but possessed some information. He told me I should find all about les pierres and other antiquités near Saumur in the work of Monsieur Bodin, of whom the employé at the chemin de fer had also told me, but whose book I have never been able to get, inasmuch as the public library at Saumur, stated by Mr. Bell to be a very good one, seems to be non inventus. I hope it has not gone, like that of Alexandria, to feed les fours, and that my goose was not cooked à la Bodin, or by any other learned work. I inquired of every one for this library, meaning to do a little literary work here as I had at Tours. No one knew anything about it; no one had heard of it. I asked the chief bookseller; he told me it was at the Mairie. I asked at the Mairie; there I was told first there was none, next that it was au collége. To the collége I went. The porter, or rather a gentleman in the porter’s lodge, told me the librarian was absent; he had no regular days, and no fixed hours of attendance, as few people ever read there, and that “enfin,”—I could not see it, as les livres were all entassés les uns sur les autres, so that one could not get at any; they were piled on one another en attendant, till they were removed to the Mairie. I suspected still more that they went not to the Mairie, but to the ovens. So I can give no learned dissertation on Celtic remains for the benefit of my readers.
Besides having read Monsieur Bodin, my companion was an esprit fort, and believed in nothing. He thought indeed there was a God, but as to Christ, and the angels and devils, they were all devices of the clergy and the governing powers—moral bugbears set up to frighten people and prevent the commission of crime, and it was good policy. As to their reality being proved by the Bible—who made the Bible? Men. I asked him if he had never heard of spirits, whose return from the dead proved the truth of Scripture, and the reality of an invisible world?
“Bah!” he said, “Contes. Man was an animal and died as other animals died—living no more.”
“A sad creed,” said I “for the poor and the suffering. Would you not be happier if you believed there was a recompense hereafter for those who had suffered and striven to do right on earth?”
“Mais puisqu’il n’y a pas de Ciel?” was his reply, and we argued all the way we went, and I could not shed a gleam of hope into his soul. One day he will know better.
Let me say that a sad infidelity appears to me the prevalent tone of feeling among the French of all ranks. In the railway carriages, from officers, merchants, labourers, travellers of all ranks and degrees, when no priest or nun was present, I have heard nothing but sneers at the weakness of those who believed in la mythologie of Christianity. The Revolution has left its traces, and a vast proportion of the people are atheists still. The French seem divided into two classes: those who believe everything, and those who believe nothing. Even on earth the first are the happiest, for in their sorrows, however dark and rough their path, the sunshine of God shines above the mountain peaks, while the unhappy doubter sees nothing but the bleak rocks and precipices around him. The fulness of all sorrow is to cease to believe.
At Rion my companion turned off to the village, first pointing out my road to Rou. I was not sorry to be alone. It was a gloriously beautiful sunny day, with here and there grey clouds floating across the blue sky, too surely indicative of coming rain. My way lay among richly cultivated fields, vignes, orchards, and meadows, all thickly planted with poplars and fruit trees. The grasshoppers chirped in the grass, and troops of brown butterflies, and a few blue ones of the species common where marjorum abounds, flitted around me, while the breeze passing through the large walnut trees which shaded the road, and studded the fields around, was delightfully aromatic. Clematis grew in the hedges, and I gathered a bouquet of that and wild mint, and marjorum and walnut leaves; and when I grew tired smelt it, and was refreshed, and thought the lovely trailing plant so pretty, whether in flower or in feathery seed, was rightly named “Traveller’s Joy.” On my right were many little plantations, chiefly of evergreen oak, and on the left, amid the meadows, two old castellated châteaux, whose names I forget. Just where the road divided I saw a peasant shaking down plums, and asked the way to Rou, which he pointed out. There was nothing interesting in the village, except that its style of architecture was unmistakeably French. Nowhere in England do we see those steep high-pitched roofs, projecting garret-windows, persiennes, and ledges and corners that are indescribable, but which give variety and picturesqueness to the most tumble-down grenier. Nothing strikes an English person so much as the absence of life in the fields. In all this long walk, I saw no birds but two magpies, and scarcely any human beings. On the railways it was the same. We travelled miles without seeing a single person. Two Frenchmen, one a priest, the other a farmer, noticed this to me and commented on it sadly, asking me if it was the same with us. I answered, “England was over-populated, labour was so plentiful that the market was over-stocked, and our labourers in some counties could scarcely earn dry bread for themselves and their families.” A true and most lamentable fact.
“Ah! but,” said the priest, almost in the language of Goldsmith—“Le peuple fait la richesse d’un pays. Here the number of inhabitants diminishes yearly. There are not above two-thirds of the population in my village that there were twenty years ago.”
“There are not near two-thirds of what there were twenty years ago where I come from,” responded the farmer.
I asked how it was—and was told partly because the young people went to the towns; partly because French families wished only for one child, that that one might be rich. I passed through Rou without seeing a living soul—only some large dogs barking furiously rushed out from a farm-yard, which my dog with his usual impertinence had entered, but no one followed to see at what they barked. I was tired and thirsty and saw no sign of a village inn. At last I spied an old woman with a pail in her hand, in a yard. I opened the gate and asked if there was a Cabaret in Rou. “Non, ils n’y avont pas.” Could she give me any milk? Yes, if I would go to the cave. To the cave, I went; she first shewed me all the pots (which stood on the ground) were very clean, and then gave me one full of warm new milk from her pail, and I pulled out some bread from my bag, sat down on a large stone that happened to be in the cave, and ate my dinner, and looked round. The cellar had no aperture but the door,—its floor was of earth, and in the middle stood about twenty grey blue-rimmed jugs, nearly four inches thick—similar to that in my hand, which I found rather difficult to drink from, since its edge was far thicker than my finger,—all full of goat’s milk, and cow’s milk, and in a corner lay some goat-milk cheeses on leaves. The little old woman was a curiosity herself. Her face was brown, withered, and wrinkled like an unpeeled walnut, and the sinews of her shrivelled wizened neck stood out like whip-cord—but she had a good countenance, and might have been a pretty paysanne once. She wore an old blue gown very much patched, but perfectly clean, as was her close-fitting thick small white bonnet or cap—and although it was Saturday, the coarse well darned knitted stockings she wore under her sabots were snowy white. She seemed to take a fancy to me, and when I had eaten my bread and drank my milk, for which I paid two sous, she invited me to see her house on the opposite side of the way, of which she seemed very proud. It was very dark and very dirty, so that I excused myself from entering, on the ground of being in a hurry to see les pierres, and get home to Saumur, but peeping in, I noticed there was a large open fire-place, over which hung a black pot; the furniture consisted of a dusty round table and some dusty chairs, and a large bed with blue linen curtains in the awful depths of obscurity au fond. On the floor was an iron pan containing quartered potatoes unpeeled, and various other condiments, in which stood the fire-shovel; which I hoped might be a mess for the cow, as it did not seem fit for the human animals my Rion friend called mankind, but dared not ask, lest I should give offence, and wound the good old soul’s feelings. Upon my naming les pierres, she said they were in a vigne and I should never find them—she would show me the way—so she led to the field by which I had entered the village, and over another, and across a rough road, skipping along in her sabots over the furrows with far more agility than I could, though she was, she told me, seventy-two years of age, and I noticed with admiration her small wonderfully beautifully formed feet and thin ancles, notwithstanding the heavy sabots. As we crossed the road we met a garde champêtre, I called him, but he said he was a garde particular, and belonged to that beautiful chateau beyond,—which was a modern erection rather in the parvenu style I thought;—and Marie Catineau née Aubin informed him I was Anglaise, and had come all that way over the sea to see le pays et les pierres, and then, he too, quoted Monsieur Bodin, whose ouvrage he had at home, and which he seemed disposed to lend me, if I had not been so far off at Saumur. The two pierres couvertes of Rou resemble that of Terres Fortes, in being far smaller than the Dolmen of Pontigné, and are also used as out-houses. On our way back Marie Catineau inquired my history, and pitied me for not being married, and being, as she had told the garde, si delaissée as to be obliged to travel alone toute seule; and told me hers, and how she had a grandson who also would travel and see the world, but could get no work, and was half starved, and had to come home, for “v’yez vous, what he earned in one place he spent in going to another, and what would become of me if I fell ill? J’avons quatre petit fils, and only this one took such a strange fancy, and he was the only one of ma famille who voyaged.” Then she asked me what England was like, and whether there were trees and meadows there. She fancied it all water, de l’eau partout, and I daresay thought we had fins like mermaids, only we hid them when we came to a country where there was terra firma, like France. I gave her a few sous for her trouble and thanked her, but it was clear she had not come for any hope of profit, but from pure kindness, and it may be a little love of gossip. Then she pointed out my homeward path, which I easily traced by the plants and trees I had noticed. Keeper had made his remarks too. On the way to Rou I stopped to gather blackberries and gave him some, which he licked, spit out, played at ball with, and tried again and again with much the same expression of face as a person who eats olives for the first time, very doubtful as to whether he ever can like them. It appeared that en route he had decided the question, and come to the conclusion that ripe blackberries were good for dogs, for he ran on before me, stopped at each bush I had previously stopped at, and ate up the blackberries he had rejected.
As I returned, I saw among the copsewood pale sulphur and black butterflies. One of the beautiful creatures let me approach so near that I could see the long silky hairs which thickly covered its slender body. It seemed a different species from our English swallow-tail, but I have no books to consult here. I saw, too, a large black-and-white moth, apparently, whose under-wings, instead of scarlet, were a rich crimson, almost a magenta, hue. Beyond these woods were crags covered with purple heather, gleaming crimson in the light. Tired as I was, I could not resist going out of my way to enjoy a clamber over the wild moor, and its fresh breezy air. I traversed field and coppice, got over a hedge, and scrambled to the highest peak, whence, looking down, I saw four or five workmen taking their afternoon meal, who seemed as startled as if I had dropped from the clouds when they saw my pilgrim hat and grey cloak peer up above the rocks. I sat down and examined the huge masses of stone around. They were the same grey slabs as those of which the Dolmen are formed, and lay piled upon one another as in one of our Cumbrian mountain-valleys, in most fantastic positions. I could not help thinking it was possible that these Dolmen were merely huge masses of rock forced into their situation by some vast body of water, which had whirled rocks and earth together, and that all man had really done had been to scoop the latter away so as to form for himself a rude dwelling-place. No doubt had any antiquarian been there, he would have looked as aghast at my theory as Monkbarns, when Edie Ochiltree “minded the biggin’ o’” the Roman camp. After I had gathered handfuls of heather, I descended, fell into the road again, and soon came to a coarse sand-stone, like that on which Nottingham Castle stands; very unlike the boulders I had quitted, which resemble those at the head of Derwent Water, as one goes to visit the Rocking Stone.
There is yet another Pierre Couverte beyond St. Florent, on the opposite side of Saumur. The walk to St. Florent is bordered by acacia trees most of the way, while the Loire winds through the meadows on either hand, is pleasant and pretty. Up a narrow lane, from whose walls of unhewn stones hung common English ferns, I passed more huge boulders wedged in the ground. Some peasant women were sitting on them, resting and enjoying the lovely view of the valley of the Loire, with Saumur and its four-towered castle crowning the rocks. For the French peasant has a keen sense of natural beauty. Similar boulders were scattered all along my way, half buried in the ground. The Pierre was the smallest I had seen. It is in a field opposite a solitary farm-house, from whence there is a most lovely view.
Donné par l’Ecole Imperiale di Cavalerie de Saumur,
Le Lundi, 18th Août, 1862.
For the last three days there has been bustle enough in the little town. Le quinze d’Août was at once the fête de la ville et de l’Empereur. So we had a fair and fireworks, and crowds of peasants in holiday costume, with wondrous superstructures of lace and embroidered muslin upon their heads. I cannot help thinking those curious round towers which seem suddenly to spring out of the walls a l’improviste, are modelled after a Normande bonnet, and meant as a compliment to the fair sex; or, at least, that the bonnet suggested the towers. Of course I went to see the fireworks and the illumination of the town-hall and market-house, which was pretty, and no more. I had set my heart on seeing it from the bridge, and watching the effect of light and shade on the water of the Loire, and on the turreted and crenellated Hotel de Ville, and the massive castle above. Madame Bayot and her daughters thought only of les feux d’artifices. I was forced to content myself with a walk across the bridge after all was over. That was more beautiful than rocket or bouquet. Looking down from the parapet one did not see by night the huge sand-banks which disfigure the Loire: the coloured lamps decorating a house in the suburb were reflected on the still, glassy waters, and the contrast of the illuminated Hotel de Ville, the lit-up town, the dark-wooded hill des Petits Puits, and the Loire, dark as night, except where the moonlight fell upon it, or some lamp or illuminated house cast a white, quivering gleam,—was as poetically beautiful as heart could desire. At that hour I do not think Venice itself could have looked more lovely. On Sunday there was a race, to which I did not go, of course, but I saw from my window the officers ride or drive past in all their variety of resplendent uniforms, and yesterday I went to the carrousel, which is one of the gayest, prettiest sights I ever saw, and must, I should think, greatly resemble an ancient tournament. Knowing no one in the town, I had not an officer’s ticket, and the benches of les Tribunes, to which only our billets de l’Hôtel de Ville admitted us, were so crammed, Mdlle. Nina and I returned home in despair. As we bewailed our hard fate in not seeing the carrousel, to Mdlle. Louise, a Monsieur —— passed, who was someway employed in the École. He took us back with him and admitted us with some bourgeoises, friends of his, into the École itself. Up stone stair after stair, through long corridors and vaulted passages, we hurried till we reached le grenier, where planks and soldiers’ bedsteads, pillows, and mattresses, were piled neatly away ready for use. In front of the garret windows stages of planks were erected, clearly for sight-seers, and on to these we scrambled, not without danger to our heads from the beams of the roof, and the planks above us. From the open window the view was splendid. Before us was the sanded closed-in arena for the carrousel, on the left the tribunes for the populace, on the right the officers’ tents, the General’s in the centre, marked by its superior height and decorations and flag, all full of gay ladies and gentlemen; and facing us, under cover, beyond the arena, the orchestra,—while behind the levée, or artificial bank raised to protect the town from the inundations of the Loire, was one mass of heads, above which spread like a panorama Pont Fouchart, Baguieu, and les terres fortes closing in the gay scene with leafy trees and green sloping fields. But, alas, we had not long enjoyed it when the General spied us, and sent orders for every one to leave the windows. I pleaded that I was a stranger, an écrivaine, finally that Lord Brougham had given me authority to use his name in travelling whenever it could benefit me, and I was sure, had I written and stated that to Messieurs les officiers Français, they would have given me an officer’s ticket at once. Monsieur ——, who had admitted us, retired, and shortly afterwards we were informed that we might remain, but les croisées must be closed. Vexatious, for the officers were just entering the arena, but military orders must be obeyed, and every croisée was closed. In they filed, two by two, fine young men in splendid uniforms. I was told there were eighty-two concurrents for the prizes that day. There are generally between three and four hundred sous officiers at the École. Among the jousters were three Spaniards,—for foreign officers are permitted to study here,—and there are Russian, Swedish, and Wallachian officers. The Duke of Wellington was partly educated at the Ecole de Cavalerie at Angers, since transferred to Saumur. The French may therefore at least boast with truth, that they taught our greatest general how to beat them.
It is impossible to describe the gay and splendid uniforms. There were four with steel corslets on the breast and back, and four with similar golden corslets. One Spanish officer had a light blue hussar jacket richly braided with black, and red trowsers. Some wore cocked-hats, dark blue or green coats edged with red and gold, and tight-fitting white breeches, like our hunters. The beautiful prancing horses had knots of coloured ribbon on their foreheads and manes. The prettiest were some bright bays, with violet purple ribbons and reins. To each officer as he reached the middle of the arena a sort of lance, with a pennon streaming from it, was handed, which he took, held out at arm’s length, and riding up to the general’s tent, lowered it gracefully as a salute, the horses of most seeming to make a sort of bend also, and then each rode off to the end of the lists. When all had saluted they rode backwards and forwards, passing and repassing each other, still with the lance poised in the outstretched arm. Their arms must have ached, I thought. Then a message was sent that the windows might now be opened, with which order we and other occupants of the many croisées gladly complied; and the scene was really gay and beautiful beyond description. Beside all the glittering uniforms, the blue blouse, common to the working man of France, the white head-dresses of the peasant women, and the gay ribboned caps of the bourgeoises on the Tribune and the levée, and the scarlet clad orchestra with their brazen instruments glittering in the sun, all relieved and set as it were in a frame of green verdure by the trees on each side the arena, and the panorama of woods and meadows beyond the levée, made up a picture that was perfect in itself. And now, upon the ends of four crosses affixed to poles in the ground, much like a child’s windmill in form, coloured rings were suspended by slender threads, and each officer as he rode round the lists—his horse dancing sideways with measured steps to the music—tried to carry off as many of these rings as he could. Several got three; some none; others one only; and each, as he rode round, gracefully laid his rings on the ground before the general’s tent. Afterwards, those who had gained the rings contested again for the prize. A broad-shouldered, fine-looking man, apparently older than the others, who seemed to go most systematically to work, carried off four at the first round. None of the others got so many, and of course he had the decoration. The prizes were not given publicly. After this the crosses were removed, four little hillocks of sand erected, and coloured balls, to represent heads, stuck on them; each officer held a pistol in his right hand, a drawn sword in his left, and as he cantered round the lists to music, fired his pistol, threw it on the ground, where it was picked up by men stationed on purpose, changed his sword from his left hand to his right, and tried to spear as many of the heads as he could. One officer speared four, which he carried round the arena, and deposited on the ground before the general’s tent. The others speared only two or three at most. Therefore he had the prize. Then they all rode out two and two, as they had entered, to music. The heaps were levelled, baskets, topped with reeds, to imitate a hedge, placed across the arena, and a fresh set of officers rode their horses at, and leaped across it. I rather scorned this exhibition, thinking, in my heart, how our hunting men would have laughed at these fences after a five-barred gate, or the leaping poles at which I have known them practice. In fact, I don’t think, when I was younger, I should have thought anything of such a leap myself. They also departed, the mock-fence was cleared away, and a troop of soldiers entering on horseback performed a sham-fight, and various manœuvres, which were somewhat like the figures of a quadrille, all to music. The whole scene was very gay and exciting, could one have forgotten that all this was but the rehearsal of the terrible drama of war. A heavy shower of rain fell just as the fête concluded; and we again rejoiced that we had been so lucky as not to get seats on the uncovered tribune, but to get sent to the grenier, where we saw everything infinitely better than even the general from his tent, and were safely sheltered from the heavy downfall. As we scuttled home as fast as we could to avoid the great crush we had endured on entering, we saw the gay ladies from the tents endeavouring to save their elegant dresses from being spoiled. They were in full toilette. Many of the dresses were clear white muslin, trimmed with black. Some were richly braided in black. So were the buff dresses and the thick white piqué frocks and blouses worn by the children. They all looked very elegant and pretty. To-day there were more races outside the town, and I sat and watched carriage after carriage full of bright uniforms, and gaily dressed ladies, go past. An officer en face stood on his balcony claquant son fouet, and talking to my right-hand neighbour; another below the balcon was mounting his horse. Then came a curious double carriage, like two half-vans raised on springs; into it he of the whip got, with half-a-dozen others; other carriages followed, and away they drove, cracking their long whips as loud as they possibly could. This evening I saw them all return. My left-hand neighbour au second has won a prize, an objet d’art, but he has not exhibited it to me, so I cannot send Once a Week a facsimile of it. So ends the Fête of Saumur and the Carrousel. I am very glad I came in time to see it.