France – Driving In Rural France

Then we secured two carriages and an interpreter and the interpreter’s fat wife, and drove ten miles over a lovely road, over hills—like the hills that lie between my home and Urbana; only these hills were longer and the road incomparably fine. Along the way there were meadows and wheatfields, full of flowers, great masses of poppies in bloom, roses, violets, and many sorts of lovely flowers. Our carriages were drawn by sedate Percheron horses that walked slowly up the hills; we sprang out and gathered armloads of flowers and took them with us. We gathered other armloads of fresher ones, then regretfully lay those first gathered by the road-side. We passed through wonderful green, dense, shaded and mysterious woodlands, and by picturesque cottages. We came at last to a quaint old village, high upon the hills, a village where a horse fair was in progress. It was a great fete or holiday. The streets were decorated with little pine trees set as though growing, with flags and streamers; the people had come in donkey carts and fine carriages and afoot, till all the streets were full. We got seats in the little inn, where we talked more soberly of home and dear ones and of life in its new aspects; and after a time enjoyed a dinner that was served by that best sauce, a ravenous appetite, for it was now about two o’clock. No marring incident befell us, and when that night I pressed the pillow with my face, it was with the consciousness that I had spent one of the happiest days of my life and that I was still happy, for my friends lay near me in the adjoining room.

I have heard that it was wicked to be happy. I do not believe it; I think that to be happy is to be good. Well do I recall the following day; all my life it will remain with me. James M. Fletcher had asked Mr. and Mrs. Hopkins and me to go with him that day on his rounds among the Percheron breeders. We must start at daybreak. We had a good machine and a good chauffeur; the roads were perfect. From Nogent we sped up a long slope; below us the valleys lay stretched out, half hidden in the morning mist, like a bride behind her white veil—beautiful, smiling, verdant valleys, dotted with trees and studded with homesteads. We kept the wide, straight, white road, all perfectly clear to the extreme edges of the grass that bordered it, with no ditches along it, only grassy slopes and a little rise of turf, like a sweet potato ridge at the extreme edge, marking its boundary. These roads were de-signed by Napoleon, planning a hard, white center for his cavalry and artillery. The grassy sides were for his foot soldiers. Sometimes we flew along avenues of poplars and cottonwoods for miles; then we would come to a mile or more of apple trees, planted by the roadside. They have a way there of putting apple and pear trees in nurseries and training them to grow with straight, upright stems about ten feet high, strong enough to resist cattle; then they are transplanted to pastures or roadsides for shade, and from their apples, both cider and brandy are made.

It was pleasant, this swift skimming along through the delightful green world. We passed by picturesque houses and farms and the old villages all too swiftly. One would like to linger at a thousand spots that we espied that day. Our chauffeur tried to be careful and considerate toward all the motorists and others whom met or passed, and it was interesting to see how differently our approach was taken by the various animals and humankind. Very sensibly the horses usually paid us no manner of attention. Donkeys (the old women were going to market in donkey carts by the scores), were more unruly, and some of them brought us to an abrupt stop, since they stubbornly refused to get out of the way. One donkey, with more than animal intelligence, backed his cart squarely crossways of the road and stood there, the personification of stubbornness, completely barring the way, while the woman, with much excited talking, made a hurried dismount with her precious eggs and butter. The things that she said to that donkey with her face close to his imperturbable ear would be interesting to read if they could be translated. Another donkey stood dreamily in the road, crossways, completely blocking it, and gazing at us with supercilious in-difference, as though to say, “All right; come on; if you care to wreck a $5,000 automobile on a $20 donkey, I am willing to be the goat.”

We paid heed to the cows, however, since one can never tell in which direction they may dodge at the last moment, and when we neared a flock of roadside sheep our chauffeur came fairly to a stand-still, explaining that while sheep looked innocent they were, from his viewpoint, “the very devil.”

Village after village flew past us until at last – we stopped at the farm of M. August Tacheau, where we inspected many splendid Percheron horses. Then M. Tacheau in his own automobile accompanied us, and we sped on past more tiny farming villages, until we reached the farm of M. Dejours. Here again we stopped, while stallion after stallion was brought out for our inspection. All of them were in perfect order, all perfectly groomed and all posed for us as though they had practiced posing since colthood, which, in truth, they had. Mr. Fletcher’s eye soon noted the best ones ; the others were returned to their stables. Then followed a season of dickering, after which certain of the best were booked for American pastures. While the men were dickering over the purchases, we three explored the farm. It was a place of about 400 acres, which is unusually large for the Perche country, and also, which is unusual, it was a rented place. Beside the horses it had grand Normandy cows, full of milk and beef. There was a great court-yard of which the dwelling house and horse stables made one side and the cow stables another side, and a long building holding hay, carts, chickens, rabbits and farm laborers made the third side. Within this court there were chickens, newly hatched and not yet allowed to run (if they ever are, I do not know it) ; turkeys, ducks and an enormous pile of manure. A new barn was building. The roof was framed together just as are church roofs, tremendously strong, being of the trunks of trees hewn to a sort of shape, yet retaining the natural curves of the trees. On this roof tiles were being laid, and between posts it would be filled with other tiles, then given a coating of plaster. This barn will be in good repair 600 years from today.

We went into the house and into a fine old living room, which was also the kitchen. It was beautifully neat and clean, having the invariable immense fireplace where things were cooked. A small dining-room was probably used only when there were guests with the family, for the common dining table was in the room with the fireplace. Out on the upland meadows was sainfoin (“holy hay”) in full bloom and all aglow with its red spikes of pea-like blooms, ready for the mower, and making the richest of hay. It was a beautiful field. We sped to the famous farm of A. Lefeuvre, and here we saw our ideal of what a country place ought to be, in France or elsewhere. There was a great court, perhaps 300 feet in diameter, flanked by great stone barns on the sides, and the dwelling, occupying one side in the center, but not attached to the barns, though commanding. all. Here was spread out before our eyes a wonderful array of horses, all blacks but one; he was a gray. Every horse was in perfect condition, in high flesh, with a shining coat, full of life and action. We went into the stables to see what they were fed, and learned that oats, bran, barley and green forage made their ration. Alfalfa or sainfoin, one or the other, the horses must have, and some men told us that one was the better; some that it was the other.

What a parade of horses that was. Their master was as much of a show to us as the horses. He was a man of splendid energy and activity. How he marshalled, commanded and disported them ! America produces strong men, but I have never seen one quite the equal of A. Lefeuvre, fils. He is in earnest, full of tireless energy, intelligent and has the same sort of intuition that is given only to painters, sculptors and great breeders. At last the bargaining was, done, or put off till another day, and the impatient madame ushered us into the dining-room to partake of our long-delayed breakfast. In-deed we were ready for it, seeing that it was now past one o’clock and we had fasted since the evening before. What a breakfast that was. Beginning with delicious soup, hard, crusty sweet bread, yellow butter that tasted like the sweetest cream, a lobster as large as a groundhog, fresh asparagus and a peacock roasted in some miraculous manner that left a part of its glorious feathers unsinged oh, what’s the use trying to describe a meal like that, attended to by people with appetites like ours?