CHAPTER III. BOURRON.
Two years ago some Anglo-French friends joyfully announced their acquisition of a delightful little property adjoining Fontainebleau forest. "Come and see for yourself," they wrote, "we are sure that you will be charmed with our purchase!" A little later I journeyed to Bourron, half an hour from Moret on the Bourbonnais line, on arriving hardly less disconcerted than Mrs. Primrose by the gross of green spectacles. No trim, green verandahed villa, no inviting vine-trellised walk, no luxuriant vegetable garden or brilliant flower beds greeted my eyes; instead, dilapidated walls, abutting on these a peasant's cottage, and in front an acre or two of bare dusty field! My friends had indeed become the owners of a dismantled bakery and its appurtenances, to the uninitiated as unpromising a domain as could well be imagined. But I discovered that the purchasers were wiser in their generation than myself. Noticing my crestfallen look they had said: -
"Only wait till next year, and you will see what a bargain we have made. You will find us admirably housed and feasting on peaches and grapes."
True enough, twelve months later, I found a wonderful transformation. That a substantial dwelling now occupied the site of the dismantled bakery was no matter for surprise, the change out of doors seemed magical. Nothing could have looked more unpromising than that stretch of field, a mere bit of waste, your feet sinking into the sand as if you were crossing the desert. Now, the longed-for tonnelle or vine-covered way offered shade, petunias made a splendid show, choice roses scented the air, whilst the fruit and vegetables would have done credit to a market-gardener. Peaches and grapes ripened on the wall, big turnips and tomatoes brilliant as vermilion took care of themselves. It was not only a case of the wilderness made to blossom as the rose, but of the horn of plenty filled to overflowing, prize flowers, fruit and vegetables everywhere. For the soil hereabouts, if indeed soil it can be called, and the climate of Bourron, possess very rare and specific qualities. On this light, dry sand, or dust covering a substratum of rock, vegetation springs up all but unbidden, and when once above ground literally takes care of itself. As to climate, its excellence may be summed up in the epithet, anti-asthmatic. Although we are on the very hem of forty thousand acres of forest, the atmosphere is one of extraordinary dryness. Rain may fall in torrents throughout an entire day. The sandy soil is so thorough an absorbent that next morning the air will be as dry as usual.
This house reminded me of a tiny side door opening into some vast cathedral. We cross the threshold and find ourselves at once in the forest, in close proximity moreover to its least-known but not least majestic sites. We may turn either to right or left, gradually climbing a densely wooded headland. The first ascent lands us in an hour on the Redoute de Bourron, the second, occupying only half the time, on a spur of the forest offering a less famous but hardly less magnificent perspective, nothing to mar the picture as a whole, sunny plain, winding river and scattered townlings looking much as they must have done to Balzac when passing through three-quarters of a century ago.
This eastern verge of the Fontainebleau forest is of especial beauty; the frowning headlands seem set there as sentinels jealously guarding its integrity, on the watch against human encroachments, defying time and change and cataclysmal upheaval. Boldly stands out each wooded crag, the one confronting the rising, the other the sinking sun, behind both massed the world of forest, spread before them as a carpet, peaceful rural scenes.
I must now describe a spot, the name of which will probably be new to all excepting close students of Balzac. The great novelist loved the valley of the Loing almost as fondly as his native Touraine; and if these pastoral scenes did not inspire a chef d'oeuvre, they have thereby immensely gained in interest. "Ursule Mirouet," of which I shall have more to say further on, is not to be compared to such masterpieces as "Eugenie Grandet." But a leading incident of "Ursule Mirouet" occurs at Bourron - a sufficient reason for recalling the story here.
The beauty of our village, like the beauty of French women, to quote Michelet, "is made up of little nothings." There are a hundred and one pretty things to see but very few to describe. Who could wish it otherwise? Little nothings of an engaging kind better agree with us as daily fare than the seven wonders of the world. With forty thousand acres of forest at our doors we do not want M. Mattel's newly discovered underground river within reach as well.
From our garden we yet look upon scenes not of every day. Those sweeps of bluish-green foliage strikingly contrasted with the brilliant vine remind us that we are in France, and in a region with most others having its specialities. Asparagus, not literally but figuratively, nourishes the entire population of Bourron. Everyone here is a market gardener on his own account, and the cultivation of asparagus for the Paris markets is a leading feature of local commerce.