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THE FOREST OF FONTAINEBLEAU.
WHEN a poor fellow is tied by the wrist to stony-hearted London, and the incessant claims of newspaper and periodical work leave him no speedy prospect of an excursion, it is certainly disagreeable, to use a mild term, to have Dick, Tom, and Harry, call in at his chambers, just to bid him good-by, and tantalise him by an account of all the pleasures they anticipate during their continental trip. Such, unhappily, is my case, and, in self-defence, I take up the pen to describe to my readers a delicious villegiatura which I enjoyed a year or two back in the forest of Fontainebleau. The next best thing to packing up one's portmanteau, and setting off by the earliest mail train, is to think over the happy days one spent when the fates were kinder and editors more indulgent.
The great beauty of the forest is, that it is generally left to solitude. Its gorges and rocky valleys, its glades and waterfalls, possess no special charm for the swarm of bedizened, star-spangled, gold-laced courtiers, who settle down like a swarm of locusts on Fontainebleau, whenever their imperial majesties take up their summer residence there for a couple of weeks or months; but they leave the forest, with all its glorious beauties, to the admirers of nature. Moreover, they are so grand and fine, that they willingly content themselves with the English garden, the park, and the flower terraces. Only two or three chasses, which are regularly held when the court is at Fontainebleau, form a transient exception, and then the scene changes. Barking-dogs, hunting-horns, stamping, snorting horses, gun-shots, and cannon signals; the shouts and cries of the beaters and piqueurs, the rising smoke of the various open-air kitchens, laughter and quiet drinking-bouts, blind flute-players and fiddlers, and yelling mobs of boys. But when the evening mist settles down on the landscape, all disappear and are silent, and on the next morning the forest is again calm and solitary. The birds twitter their thousand-throated chorus, the woodpecker taps on the trees, the wood-pigeons cluck, the hawk and the falcon croak their hoarse cry in the pure sky, squirrels and rabbits timidly venture forth, because they do not quite trust the tranquillity after the uproar of the preceding day; the sun shines hotly, coloured butterflies sport about the glades, and glistening dragon-flies flash across the swamps. At such a time the forest is itself again, and seems only to desire one thing, in which we heartily join, that it may be left at peace for a long time. Its true and real foes-the foresters, with their assistants and woodcutters-are certainly moving constantly about under the tall trees, and many a noble stem is marked with the inevitable red cross. Then the deadly axe of the workman resounds far and wide through the silence, and awakes the echo of the surrounding rocks.
Strangers who visit Paris rarely go to Fontainebleau, the English excepted, who, with their instinctive admiration of natural beauties, have read either at home, or somewhere en route, that a trip to Fontainebleau well repays the trouble, for it is certainly a journey. You must always calculate on two or three days, if you wish to see, though only hurriedly, everything that is worthy of inspection.
I will say nothing about the château on this occasion, although
during my last visit the imperial court had again migrated to Fontainebleau. On such occasions the tall bearskin shakos stand everywhere behind the railings, and any persons who enter are anxiously examined, and have to pass through two or three hands before they are admitted to the sanctuary. The emperor-popular though he is called, and perhaps believes himself to be-has not yet ventured to do one thing which all the French kings before him did-leave the gates and doors of his palaces open, so that any one who pleases may go in and out. In this he follows the example of his uncle, who also secluded himself, and always had iron railings and files of soldiers between himself and his "faithful people." All the sentries at the château have loaded muskets, and if you express your surprise at it, you receive the simple answer that tradition will have it so; but it has no further significance. This explanation, of course, does not prevent a man from entertaining his own opinion on the matter.
Fontainebleau itself, like Versailles, a slow, dead town, is naturally metamorphosed, as if by an enchanter's wand, immediately on the arrival of the court; but this change is so forced and unnatural that it does not at all produce a cheering effect. It certainly looks as if a slice of the Bois de Boulogne, or of the Champs Elysées, had been put down in the long, broad, main street of the town, for so many equipages, general officers of the Guards, and smartly dressed ladies and gentlemen, may be seen hurrying about. But all proceed to the château, without looking to the right or left, or taking the slightest notice of the inhabitants, who, like all provincials, run with hasty curiosity to their doors and windows on hearing the sound of a passing carriage or galloping horse. The handsome and numerous hotels are also nearly all empty, for strangers and visitors from the surrounding departments always defer their visit till the departure of their majesties, as it is not till then that the park and château are thrown open to the public.
Hence we shall lose and omit nothing if we turn our back on the town, the château, and all the rest (even their majesties), and at once drive out into the forest, say to Franchard or Barbizon, in order to find a delicious miniature representation of Saxon Switzerland, or the Hartz Mountains. This double comparison appears to me to be very characteristic of the interesting and peculiar nature of the great forest of Fontainebleau, which really thus becomes a geological curiosity. The department of the Seine and Marne, in which Fontainebleau is situated, is flat, and level as a plate; only here and there gentle elevations border the bed of the Seine, which flows with the most varied windings through meadows and corn-fields a pleasant, but simple and modest scene. Small towns and villages are everywhere scattered about the landscape; at times, too, the lofty chimney of a factory-at least in the direction of Paris-as well as larger and smaller villas, and a busier life generally, announce the vicinity of the mighty capital. The engines of the Lyons and Marseilles Railway the largest in France-are constantly dashing past, and impart to the scene the necessary element of modern life.
But Fontainebleau with its forest is an entirely different world. If it did not sound profane, we might be inclined to say that Nature, after forming the Vosges, the Jura, and the Pyrenees, deposited on the banks of the Seine the rest of her rocks and mountains, so strange, and, to a certain extent, inexplicable appears the phenomenon. The whole ex
tensive province is a low-lying plain, which is often exposed in consequence to inundations in autumn; and here we suddenly find mountain and valley, rock, ravines, and granitic masses, even stalactite grottos, and slate and marble quarries. All this is compressed into the confined space of a few square miles, and, though, small and insignificant, at least when compared with real mountainous countries, is picturesque and imposing here owing to its very peculiarity.
Franchard lies in the centre of the forest, in the shadow of aged oaks and beeches; the so-called Clovis Oak, which stands in a small meadow off the high-road, is even stated to be one thousand years of age. Franchard itself was a monastery in the mediaval ages; some walls still remain, which have recently been employed in building a very romantic gamekeeper's lodge. Opposite to it is of course the inevitable restaurant, with its Parisian buffet, its white-aproned waiters, and the whole obligato uproar of a Boulevard café, while at the same time bad and dear. But, as we emerge from the oak wood, what a panorama is presented to us in the east! Rocks piled on rocks, frequently in the wildest positions and shapes, deep gorges between them, while in some places the granite walls so nearly meet that only a very narrow passage is left, and crinolines must remain behind, or reach the upper plateau by a circuit, where an enormous slab of rock projects a long distance over the precipice, and offers a view which is really unique in its way.
On the left, the rocks sink perpendicularly, and the simple, quiet meadows and corn-fields begin again, but in our front and rear there is a wild chaotic sea of rocks and scattered granite blocks of the size of a house; then smooth bare rocks, which dazzlingly reflect the sunbeams; here, dense scrub and gloomy pines and firs; there is even a mountain torrent, which falls in the shape of a plashing cascade, and forms a small dark lake, while on the right we have the oak-wood in all its majestic splendour as the crown of the whole. On the plateau itself there are seats and benches, and the ground around has been levelled and planted with birch-trees, which flourish capitally here in the pure fresh atmosphere. A few years ago, the empress gave here to the whole court a fête champêtre, at which the writer had the honour of being present-at a modest distance, of course-but still near enough to hear the music and choruses, and to enjoy (and this was an important item) the grand collation which was served for upwards of five hundred persons.
This day is certainly one of the most brilliant in the annals of France within the memory of man. On the plateau the most exalted guests were of course assembled: in the valley, equally of course, the lower children of earth. The Queen of Holland was also present, with many other princes and princesses. The emperor stepped close to the brink of the plateau, and drank, amid a fanfare of trumpets, the health of his guests assembled beneath, and then, after the old chivalrous custom, threw down the emptied goblet, which was luckily caught, and sold for a fancy price to an amateur. So at least I was informed at the time. A display of fireworks concluded the festival, at which the cardinal archbishop was present, and four marshals, and above thirty generals were in the company, without mentioning the ladies and their gorgeous toilettes. Above one hundred, mostly four-horsed equipages, had brought the guests out, and the drive home at night was accompanied by torches and
music. A marble slab, on the right-hand rock as you enter the valley announces to future generations, in golden letters and with pompous words, the imperial visit and the imperial fête, but we, in order not to spoil our cheerful temper, pluck a nosegay of wild flowers, and go across the forest in the direction of Barbizon.
About two miles beyond Franchard the landscape is suddenly altered. The huge lofty oaks disappear, the majestic forest becomes a light coppice, and from the carefully-planted trees, which form in all directions long allées with most picturesque perspectives, we soon notice that we have entered another and more distinguished region. Most of these allées are closed by green painted gates, all bearing the peculiar inscription: "Promenade du Prince Impérial."
"So their hands have even been laid on the forest, and their absurd etiquette has found its way here too," said a companion of mine, who passed for a radical at home; "it is difficult to conceive anything more absurd and at the same time more despotic: a mile of the forest is shut against everybody, merely in honour of a lad who drives through it once a year at the most."
"For Heaven's sake," I interposed, "do give your tongue a holiday. Behind this lad, as you most disrespectfully call his imperial highness, there stands a man who puts up with no nonsense; and, besides, the prefect of police arrived yesterday on a visit to the château, and he stands no nonsense either."
"I don't care," Richards observed, angrily; "but you must allow that
A couple of shots fired in our immediate vicinity fortunately disturbed my talkative friend, who had a habit of speaking his mind in France, just as if he were writing a leader in England for a so-called Liberal
"There we have it," I exclaimed; "quand on parle du loup, on en voit la queue. No one but the emperor can be shooting here; for all sport in the forest is prohibited so soon as their majesties arrive at Fontainebleau, in order that the already decimated game may not be further scared."
We approached the parquet, and saw in the background several people, but were prevented by the branches from distinguishing them. "Parquet" is the name given to an enclosed covert, in which the game is fed, and where the emperor shoots, in the company of a few select friends. It has always been a great and much coveted honour to be invited to the parquet chasses at Fontainebleau. The parquet itself is about four miles in length and two in breadth, and full of pheasants, hares, rabbits, roebuck, and deer, which pass the greater portion of the year there tranquilly, are very well fed, and display no inclination to break through the fence. Only a few times a year are these inhabitants visited by their human foes, but the destruction produced among them is at such seasons all the more terrible. No beaters or other arrangements are requisite, for the game is so abundant, and compressed in so proportionately small a space, that the sportsman is able to fire at every step he takes, and is certain of not missing in spite of all their haste and dexterity, the keepers and servants cannot load fast enough to prevent the noble sportsmen from having to wait.
"A peculiar amusement," said my radical friend, who is no game preserver, from the simple fact that he does not possess any land beyond a family vault in Kensal Green, "to fire both barrels right and left, or straight ahead, and kill a poor beast every ten paces: a peculiar pleasure, and a great art in the bargain."
This time I was obliged to allow him to be in the right: I, too, never could find any pleasure in such battues, which too often degenerate into mere butchery.
In the mean while the shooting party had drawn so near, that we could not only distinguish them plainly, but even hear them speak only the palisade and a trench separated us from them. Richards eagerly advanced, to have a good look at the emperor, who had most politely returned our salutation, as did the other gentlemen. I at once recognised Fould, Canrobert, and Fleury; presently Lord Cowley arrived, and exhausted himself in incessant bows and apologies for being behind time, which looked almost comical. The other gentlemen I did not know. There were also some twelve to sixteen piqueurs and keepers present, who continually loaded and handed the guns and rifles without any ceremony, which, it is notorious, is banished from the emperor's immediate entourage. Napoleon himself, who never looks well in mufti, appeared to me on this occasion shorter and fatter than usual: at the same time he looked extremely unwell.
"Well, the great man is a little one," Richards exclaimed-though of course not till we were a good mile from the parquet, and saw the valley of Barbizon stretching out in front of us; "he is little, and not at all good-looking."
"His uncle, too, was not tall," I remarked, angrily; "but"The destiny of the world hung on a move of his finger," Richards added, with ironical pathos, and it was plain he was preparing to make all sorts of witty remarks.
At this moment a third member of our party reminded us of the promise we had given each other on setting out, not to talk about politics or to enter into discussions of a similar nature. We obediently listened to this appeal, and for my part I felt quite ashamed that in the presence of the wondrous landscape which was spread out before us in the sunshine we could think about paltry political questions.
We had long before left the coppice, and after passing through a glorious beech wood, which appeared to us almost more beautiful than the oak glade of Franchard, we reached an elevation, affording a prospect in all directions over valley and hill. The whole country was densely wooded, bare masses of rock were rare, and small patches of meadow still rarer; at our feet lay an extensive and deep caldron-shaped valley, overgrown with black pines, and not a house or even a village to be seen; around us were circling hawks, at times a soaring heron, whose shrill cry disturbed the solemn silence, and in the dark-blue cloudless heavens the dazzling sun, which filled the whole landscape with glow and light-of a truth, the scene was wondrously beautiful, and affected us all. We still had to go through the "Wolf's Glen," a secluded spot, as wildly romantic and gruesome as anything to be seen in the Hartz, and past the "Robbers' Cave," deep subterranean grottos, connected by huge galleries, which, according to popular belief, were inhabited many hundred