VII. A RACINE CELEBRATION
MAREUIL-SUR-OURCQ, April 20th, 1899.
I could scarcely believe I was in our quiet little town of La Ferte-Milon to-day. Such a transformation - flags flying, draperies at all the windows, garlands of greens and flowers across the streets, and a fine triumphal arch - all greens and flowers arranged about the centre of the Grande Rue. Many people standing about, looking on, and making suggestions; altogether, an air de fete which is most unusual in these sleepy little streets where nothing ever passes, except at four o'clock, when the three schools come out, and clatter down the street. The Ecole Maternelle comes first, the good Mere Cecile bringing up the rear of the procession, holding the smallest children, babies three and four years old, by the hand, three or four more clinging to her skirts, and guiding them across the perilous passage of the bridge over the canal. It is a pretty view from the bridge. The canal (really the river Ourcq, canalisee), which has preserved its current and hasn't the dead, sluggish look of most canals, runs alongside of the Mail, a large green place with grass, big trees, a broad walk down the centre, and benches under the trees. It is a sort of promenade for the inhabitants and also serves as a village green, where all the fairs, shows and markets are held. The opposite bank is bordered by quaint old houses, with round towers and gardens, full of bright flowers, running down to the water's edge. There is one curious old colombier which has been there for centuries; near the bridge there is a lavoir, where there are always women washing. They are all there to-day, but much distracted, wildly interested in all that is going on - and the unwonted stir in the streets; chattering hard, and giving their opinions as to the decoration of the arch, which is evidently a source of great pride to the town.
On a bright sunny day, when the red roofs and flowers are reflected in the water, and it is not too cold, their work doesn't seem very hard; but on a winter afternoon, when they have to break the ice sometimes, and a biting wind is blowing down the canal, it is pitiable to see the poor things thinly clad, shivering and damp; their hands and arms red and chapped with cold. On the other side of the bridge, the canal wanders peacefully along through endless green meadows, bordered with poplars, to Marolles, a little village where there is the first ecluse on the way to Paris.
We had been talking vaguely all winter of doing something at La Ferte-Milon to feter the bicentenaire of Racine. They were making preparations at Paris, also at Port Royal, and it seemed hard to do nothing in his native place. His statue in the Grande Rue is one of the glories of La Ferte.
Jean Racine was born in La Ferte in 1639. He lost both father and mother young, and was brought up by his grandparents. He was sent first to school at Beauvais, later, while still quite a youth, to Port Royal. His stay there influenced considerably his character and his writings; and though he separated himself entirely from the "Solitaires" during the years of his brilliant career as poet and courtier, there remained always in his heart a latent tenderness for the quiet green valley of the Chevreuse, where he had passed all his years of adolescence, listening to the good Fathers, and imbibing their doctrines of the necessity of divine grace to complete the character. His masters were horrified and distressed when his talent developed into plays, which brought him into contact with actors and actresses, and made him an habitue of a frivolous Court.
There is a pretty letter from one of his aunts, a religieuse de Port Royal, begging him to keep away from "des frequentations abominables," and to return to a Christian life.
His career was rapid and brilliant. He was named to the Academie Francaise in 1673, and when he retired from the theatre was a welcome and honoured guest at the most brilliant court of the world. He was made private historian to the King and accompanied him on various campaigns. There are amusing mentions of the poets-historians (Boileau was also royal historian) in the writings of their contemporaries, "les messieurs du sublime," much embarrassed with their military accoutrements and much fatigued by the unwonted exercise and long days on horseback. The King showed Racine every favour. He was lodged at Versailles and at Marly and was called upon to amuse and distract the monarch when the cares of state and increasing years made all diversions pall upon him. He saw the decline and disgrace of Madame de Montespan, the marvellous good fortune of Madame de Maintenon. His famous tragedies of Esther and Athalie were written at Madame de Maintenon's request for her special institution of St. Cyr, and the performances were honoured by the presence of the King. Racine himself directed the rehearsals and the music was composed by Jean Baptiste Moreau, organist of St. Cyr. The youthful actresses showed wonderful aptitude in interpreting the passionate, tender verses of the poet. Young imaginations worked and jealousies and rivalries ran high. After a certain number of representations Mme. de Maintenon was obliged to suspend the performances in public, with costumes and music. The plays were only given in private at the Maison de St. Cyr; the young scholars playing in the dress of the establishment. He made his peace with Port Royal before he died. He submitted Phedre to his former masters and had the satisfaction of being received again by the "Grand Arnauld," who had been deeply offended by his ingratitude and his criticisms and ridicule of many of his early friends and protectors. He asked to be buried there, and his body remained until the destruction and devastation of Port Royal, when it was removed to Paris and placed in the Church of St. Etienne des Monts.