THROUGH THE MORVAN.
Of the four hundred and fifty passengers who crossed with us from Dover to Calais, in August, 1888, we lost every trace when quitting the Paris-Lyon-Mediterranee line at La Roche. Writing a hundred years ago, the great agriculturist, Arthur Young, gave his countrymen the following excellent piece of advice, which, it need hardly be said, has been generally neglected from that day to this: 'It may be useful to those who see no more of France than by once passing to Italy, to remark that if they would view the finest parts of the kingdom they should land at Dieppe, and follow the Seine to Paris, then take the great road to Moulins, and thence quit it for Auvergne, and pass to Viviers, the Rhone, and so by Aix to Italy. By such a variation from the frequented road the traveller might suffer for want of good inns, but would be repaid by the sight of a much finer and more singular country than the common road by Dijon offers, which passes in a great measure through the worst parts of France.'
The Suffolk squire who rode through France on the eve of the Great Revolution, in spite of his conscientious desire to see all that the country had to show, lost much from want of roads, maps, and any kind of accommodation. Nowadays, as will be seen from the following pages, good food and good beds await the traveller in the most remote districts; but in vain! Ninety-nine tourists out of a hundred remain of the poet Shelley's opinion - there is nothing to see in France - and hurry on as fast as the express can carry them to Geneva.
At the clean, bright, friendly little town of Auxerre we find ourselves as isolated from the beaten track as well can be. We are free to roam, sketch, stare at will, and no one notices us; not even an importunate beggar molests the sketcher as she brings out her book in the middle of the street.
This immunity from observation and annoyance forms a minor charm of French travel.
Auxerre possesses a beautiful little cathedral. It is one-towered, as that of Sens, a circumstance probably due to want of funds for the completion.
We always carry away in the memory some striking characteristic of French cathedrals, and no one can forget the exquisite tint of the building-stone here, a ruddy hue as of gold lighting up the dark, richly-sculptured mass without, nor the charming cluster of airy columns joining the Lady Chapel to the choir within, daintiest bit of architectural fancy. Whilst we were revelling in the contrast afforded by the intense glow of the stained glass and the pure white marble - the interior being one of the loveliest, if least spacious, in France - the sacristan's wife came up and said that if we waited a few minutes longer we should see a wedding.
'Although,' she added with an air of apology, 'a wedding of the third class.'
Now, whilst fairly familiar with French ways, I had never heard of marriages being divided after the manner of railway-carriages, into first, second, and third class. Our informant hastened to enlighten us. It seems that only wedding-parties of the first and second classes are entitled to enter by the front-door, to music of the full church orchestra, and to carpets laid down from porch to altar, every detail of pomp and ceremony depending on the price paid.
I must say that were I a French bride I should bargain for a wedding of the first class at any sacrifice. To have the big doors of the front portal flung open at the thrice-repeated knock of the beadle's staff; to hear Mendelssohn's 'Wedding March' pealed from the great organ; to march in solemn procession up the aisle, preceded by that wonderful figure in cocked hat, red sash, pink silk stockings, and shoes sparkling with huge buckles, all the congregation a-titter - it seems to me it were worth while being married simply for the intoxication of such a moment.
The third-class wedding-party, entering by a small side-door, and passing without music to the altar, made nevertheless a pretty picture: the bride, a handsome demoiselle de boutique, or shop assistant, in white, with veil and wreath; behind her, girls in bright dresses bearing enormous bouquets; bridegroom and supporters, all in spick and span swallow-tail coats, with white ties and gloves, like beaux in a French comedy, backwards and forwards; the priests looking gorgeous, although in their second-best robes, their gold plates shining as they collected the money; for whether married first, second or third class, the Church exacts its due. I felt real commiseration for these middle-class, evidently hard-working people, as the gold plate was presented again and again, first, I presume, for the Church; secondly, for the poor; thirdly, for Heaven knows what. Then two of the bridesmaids, each taking the arm of a white-gloved, swallow-tailed cavalier, made the round of the wedding guests, begging money of them. In fact, there seemed no end to the giving. Small wonder that marriages are on the decline in France! We left the bridal party still on their crimson velvet fauteuils - twelve being the number allotted to a wedding of the third class, the remaining guests being accommodated on rush-bottomed chairs - and next visited the underground Church of St. Germain.
What a contrast it presented to the lightness, brilliancy, and gaiety, if we may use such a word, of the cathedral! There the effect on the mind is of pure delight; we feel the exhilaration, not the austerity, of religion. Very different is the impression produced by St. Germain, which may be described as a church of tombs, a temple consecrated to the dead. Although on a smaller scale, this ancient burial-place of saints and martyrs recalls the awful mausoleum of Spanish kings. The Escurial itself is hardly more impressive.