French Chateaux – Chateau de Saint-Germain

Six o’clock, and twilight falling. Already, in the east, a white moon is ,hanging like a snowflake, and the west has faded to an amber glow. For miles and miles we have been making our way, slowly and painfully, along a road paved with cruel granite cubes, till gradually all consciousness of our surroundings has narrowed down to an intense overmastering desire to reach the journey’s end.

All day we had been travelling up the valley of the Seine, the broad, gracious valley, with its luscious meadows and stately rows of poplars, its white cliff villages, and sparkling sun-decked waters. We had only landed at Le Havre that morning, and the sense of our holiday was upon us.

Of Le Havre I remember nothing, save a net-work of modern streets, from which, after a while, we made our escape upward to the plateau of Normandy. How good the fresh air was, after the stuffy cabin in which we had passed the night! The sun was still early and pale, and long shadows lay across the road. Everywhere there were carts, all with grey horses and sleepy drivers. And industrious, white-capped women were at work in the fields, their cows feeding beside the road. In short, it was France! France! France!

At Lillebonne, I remember, we stopped for a moment to look at a Roman theatre, and an old ruined castle, once the residence of William the Conqueror, the place where he and his barons decided on their plans for the invasion of England.

There was Caudebec, too, fit home for the glittering fairies with which the Seine seemed spangled that September morning. I left my heart at Caudebec, and mean to go back some day in a motor-boat and fetch it. What a place to spend a week, dreaming among the willow shadows, or sitting at the little restaurants, looking down on the busy place!

Suddenly, to the right, the view opened, and there lay Rouen, fairylike, unsubstantial, dreaming in a turquoise mist, and guarded by poplars drawn up in single ranks across the valley. Down, down, down into the city, to find the Hotel de la Poste, ” suitable for bachelors,” according to one of my guide-books, by no means to be scorned by a hungry lady. There is a story told of our Charles II. arriving travel-stained and shabby at Rouen, and of the trouble he had to gain access to any hotel. We were dusty and travel-stained, in good sooth; but no sooner had we drawn up at the gate, than half a dozen servants ran out to welcome us. So much has competition done for travelling since the days of the Stuart Kings!

After lunch, we wandered round the Cathedral,and the Church of Saint-Ouen, making our way through the flower market to the shadowy ” Place Jeanne d’Arc,” of awful memory; and then off again, up the river valley, to Les Andelys. It lies before me yet, that wonderful view of white cliffs—ghostly weird cliffs—long lines of trees, the sparkling curve of the meandering river, and, dominating the whole, Chateau Gaillard, the ” Saucy ” castle built by Richard Coeur de Lion to defend Rouen, his Norman capital, against Philip Augustus and the French. The taking of this castle, in King John’s reign, was considered one of the greatest achievements of the Middle Ages, and the story of the eight months’ siege perhaps equals in horror that of the taking of Calais by Edward III. They say that the famine was so awful, that a hen, having fluttered its way in, was eaten, feathers and all, by a starving soldier, and that a new-born baby was fought for to the death.

That castle is almost the last thing I remember clearly; for, as the afternoon wore away, and the sun sank lower, I became more and more fatigued, and fell to watching the mile-posts flying by, faster and faster as night approached. Presently it became too dark to see them, and we had to slacken our speed, because of the terrible paved road. The villages had grown squalid and continuous, till they formed at last one long street, through which we jolted and bumped our weary way. Then again the houses ended, trees began; we were in a wood. For a moment I woke up and began peering about in the moonlight for the ghosts of the royal huntsmen who once disported themselves in this Forest of Saint-Germain. But I could see nothing save the trunks of trees, and the paved road stretching away into the distance. Suddenly there was a light, another; we were in a town, a sleepy, old-fashioned quiet town. A ghostly palace was looming to the left; and to the right were shops and cafes, already closing, the day’s work over.

“Pavilion Henri Quatre! ” we cry; and when, at last, a man hears us, he points silently along the ill-lighted street to an archway over which glimmers a feeble lamp.

I remember little of that night. From the moment I entered the low, white-painted hall, with its . many looking-glasses and curtained recesses, I realised that we were in the Petite Maison of that gay dog, Henry of Navarre. I know that the place has been rebuilt, that only one room remains of the original Chateau Neuf. But if ever a building was haunted, it is the Pavilion Henri Quatre. Our luxurious rooms were full of mystery, hung with pink brocade, the folds of which fell secretively over the doors as soon as we had closed them. There were great cupboards, and hidden exits opening on to back staircases; and the dressing-table and wardrobes were redolent of forgotten intrigues. So it is no wonder that I woke more than once in the night, fancying that Gabrielle d’Estrees was bending over me, asking what business I had to be in her bed.

Just, at dawn, I dreamed I saw the great feathered hat of her royal lover, peeping round one of the pink curtains. But it turned out to be only a spray of white roses, shaken loose by the breeze.

Next morning the sun was so radiant and golden, it made me ashamed of lying there, when there was so much to see and so little time in which to see it. So I made haste down, and sauntered out on to the terrace. How splendid it is, this chef-d’oeuvre of Le Notre. How could Louis XIV. leave it for the formal flatness of Versailles? For nearly two miles the magnificent drive runs level, straight and majestic along the top of the cliff, which here borders the valley of the Seine. Below are terraces and gardens; and like a wall, at the back, are the regular ranks of trees which form the park. But what gives the terrace its wondrous and unique charm, is the great stretch of country over which the eye seems never tired of wandering. It is like sitting on a very high wall overlooking a vast garden; only the wall is so broad, that on it there is room for a forest, a castle, a park, a town; and the garden occupies the whole of the Ile de France.

It is easy to understand why the kings of France chose this spot to dwell in. There, beyond the Seine, far away towards the horizon, veiled in a fairy mist, lies the capital. As Marie de Medicis said: ” When I am here, I feel that I have one foot at Saint-Germain, and the other in Paris.”

Like many towns, Saint-Germain owes its origin to a chapel. Long, long ago, in the tenth century, Robert the Pious, that delightful and impossible monkish king of the house of Capet, founded here a chapel to Saint Germain and Saint Martin. I daresay they used King Robert’s music in the Office of the Church, for he was a fine composer. Some of his chants and sacred songs are yet in use. ” His tall, gracious form, with gentle eyes, and beard of comely length,” as Helgaud the Monk of Fleuri has it, is the oldest ghost that walks these haunted precincts: with him he brings, not his fierce second wife, Constance of Arles, the mother of his sons, but the gentle Bertha, daughter of the Count of Blois, whom he loved, and who was so cruelly separated from him.

It was Louis the Fat, however, who began building the Castle at Saint-Germain—the great castle that lies behind the park; and Louis the Saint who finished it, and set up the exquisite chapel, with its delicate traceries, and the faces of his mother and himself carved high up in the vaulting. Here it was that the mad Prior Guillaume Stedelin made his confession of having sold himself to the devil. As if that counted anything at Saint-Germain! Here, too, the mad King Charles VI. and his wife Isabel were sitting one Sunday at Mass, thinking about a new tax they had just levied on the already overburdened people, when the sky darkened, the wind began to rise, and such a storm burst over Saint-Germain, that the remembrance of it has never died away. ” With a terrific crash a window was blown in, the glass felling over the very altar. Springing up in terror, Isabel ran and cast herself at the feet of the officiating priest, vowing, if only her life were spared, she would have the tax repealed.”

In this chapel, Francis I. was married to poor little lame Claude of France, and three of his children were brought here to be baptized. To-day it is a Museum of Sculpture, where you may study stone coffins of every size and period.

” Keep on your hat, monsieur,” says the gardien, ” it is cold in the chapel! ” Fancy keeping on your hat before the altar where Saint Louis prayed, and Henrietta Maria of England knelt with her fatherless children! For it was in this old castle, then a mere gloomy fortress, that Anne of Austria invited her unfortunate sister-in-law to take up her abode. The royal family of France, when at Saint-Germain, occupied the beautiful Chateau Neuf of Henry IV., whose site is now covered by the hotel of which I have just spoken. Here Louis XIII. lived ” comme en particulier,” as Madame de Motteville says, amusing himself with his painting and music, and learning to lard chickens. It was here that he had his mild love affair with Mademoiselle de la Fayette, and here it was he parted from her.

It is a charming story, a little oasis of innocence among the coarse amours of the period. His wife, Louis had never loved. How should he? She had been thrust upon him, whether he would or no. He had had no choice in the matter. Even her beauty failed to attract him; her chestnut hair, which the Court loved to see combed and dressed, her white hands, which were the admiration of all Europe, her beautiful neck, which she took such pains to hide.

But when he met this young girl Louise Motier, or ” La Fayette ” as she was called, all his heart went out to her. She was his friend, his ” confidante.” To her he confided his hatred of Richelieu, and all the weariness which possessed his soul at finding himself a slave to the Cardinal. And she comforted him. But one day, no doubt as they were walking here in the terraced gardens of Saint-Germain, the King, unable to control himself, spoke of his passion, and implored her to go away with him to Versailles. She herself loved the melancholy young King with all her heart, but she loved her virtue better. There was one refuge in those days for a girl like ” La Fayette,” the convent…. When they told Louis that she had made up her mind to enter religion, he fell back on the bed, from which he had just risen, and burst into tears. Yet, all the time, he knew that she was right.

“It is true,” said he, when he could speak for weeping, ” that she is dearer to me than all the world, but if she feels that religion calls her, who am I to stand in her way? ”

At one end of the hotel is a room which formed part of the original palace. From its windows we may look over the broad valley of the Seine, to where, far away, rise the towers of Saint-Denis. It was the favourite view of Louis XIII. All day he would watch the great church.

” That is where I am going to dwell so long! ” he would say; adding, with a whimsical touch of humour, “but the roads are very bad. How battered my poor body will be when it gets there! ”

He was lying looking at the view when his son was brought to him on his way from the chapel. ” Well,” asked Louis, with a smile, ” and who may you be? ”

” Louis the Fourteenth,” answered the boy proudly.

” No, no, not yet,” said his father; “but, if God wills, it shall not be long! ”

A few days afterwards, as he lay there dying, the sound of laughter came from the next room.

” Hush! ” said some one, shocked. But Louis only smiled faintly. ” It is the Queen amusing herself,” said he, and shortly after he passed away. I don’t know why I tell the story, but my mind was very full of this poor King as I walked on the terrace that morning.

His wife Anne continued to live here after his death, and when her sister-in-law Henrietta Maria took up her abode in the antiquated and unhealthy old castle beyond the park, there were gay doings at Saint-Germain. – Henrietta was terribly poor, sometimes even in actual want, but Anne of Austria always treated her with the greatest politeness. Indeed, ceremony seems to have been her particular virtue. Even when the poor English Queen scarcely knew where the next meal was coming from, a seat of equal height to that of her French sister was kept for her, and an armchair, a great honour in those days, for her son Charles. What would not one give to have seen one of these receptions, when the whole Court was kept waiting, because one Queen refused to be seated before the other!

And Charles, the Prince of Wales, he must have found it rather dull at Saint-Germain. Not a word of French could he speak, though he heard nothing else around him, and it was his mother’s native tongue. There is a curious scene described by Mademoiselle de Montpensier of the young Prince holding a torch, while his mother Henrietta dressed this beautiful young cousin of his for some ball. And all the time, the handsome boy, with his dark gipsy face, stood there mute, though I daresay, judging from his character of later days, he made eyes at the pretty Mademoiselle. This daughter of the Duke of Orleans might have been Queen of England if Charles had been quicker at languages. But she found it very difficult to take her courting second-hand, though Henrietta, her aunt, certainly did her best as a go-between.

But let us enter the castle, and see where our English Queen found a refuge during those early days of her banishment. We had a good deal of difficulty in persuading the ” gardien ” to admit us, for it was a closed day. However, at last he opened the great gates, and we found ourselves in the entrance hall. But how cold and bare! The Government has turned the whole of the ancient chateau into a museum, and a museum of sculpture, the most impossible kind of place in which to find the ghosts of the past for which one craves! It is true that the great courtyard is the same on which the exiled King James II. looked down; – the same from which he departed for Ireland, with the troops and money with which Louis XIV. had so generously provided him. But I cannot see the two Kings taking leave of each other, nor hear Louis’ hearty farewell: “The best I can wish you is that I may never see you again; but remember that, if you are obliged to return, you will find me the same as ever.”

Louis had already spent millions in enlarging and restoring Le Vieux Chateau, meaning, I suppose, to live in it, as his ancestor Francis had done. The great Mansard was engaged for the work. But, happening to look out of his window one day, the King caught a glimpse of Saint-Denis. Unlike his father, the sight of his burial-place had no charms for him, and he moved away to Versailles, thus setting the Castle of Saint-Germain at liberty for his exiled cousin of England.

For a while we wandered through rooms full of ancient gods and goddesses; came to a stop before the horned Cernunnos brought from Rheims, where he was once worshipped; and studied the great four-faced altar, which was found buried beneath Notre-Dame de Paris. But I came away unsatisfied 1 I wanted my Stuarts, with their courtly out-at-elbows’ grace; my Valois and Bourbons, with their extravagance, and even worse characteristics, I would rather have seen portraits of Louis’ mistresses—Madamoiselle de la Valliere, Madame de Monte-span, or that great martinette, Madame de Maintenon, than these cold and dead vestiges of the past. What a museum it would have made if they had restored it as of old. There we might have wandered, living again the story of those naughty, but all-too-fascinating times, studying the motives which actuated these kings and queens, sharing their confidences, shocked indeed by their actions, but understanding their temptations, so that when we left Saint-Germain lying on its height, we should have had a history lesson which might have thrown some light on the ignorance so many of us still have of that epoch.