One day I set out from Paris to go to the Forest of Arden. Yet even as I started it seemed a fantastic impossibility. To find and explore the forest beloved of Shakespeare and Rosalind would be like the coming true of a fairy tale. It was really too incredible to be true.
The Forest of Arden is the Ardennes of Belgium; and I entered by driving over from Sedan, stopping off for two or three hours on the way from Paris to Sedan, at Rheims, to see the famous cathedral there. One may leave Paris in the early forenoon, make the stop at Rheims (which, by the way, is pronounced by the inhabitants “Ross,” with the “o” very short), and be at Sedan in the evening, ready to start next morning for Bouillon, the center of Ardennes. From the northward Bouillon may be reached from Brussels and Namur, and thence, by several changes of cars, to Paliseul, and finally by a narrow-gauge that goes twisting down among the hills. From either southward or northward the Forest of Arden may be reached only by taking some trouble; and this is fortunate, for its unfrequented character is a principal charm. I could not find that an American had ever been there before me; even of the English it was clear that but few have ever visited Arden; some French and Belgians go there, mostly by motor car. Arden, I was glad to find, still fitted the Shakespearean description of being exempt from public haunt. Neither at the inn (which gives good service) nor elsewhere did I find a soul with a knowledge of a single word of English; at isolated villages I found not even French, but only Walloon.
Sedan is a city for an impression. Barely more than forty years ago it drank the dregs of humiliation, when it was forced to surrender a hundred thousand men and the very Emperor himself. Yet now there is evident in a myriad ways an atmosphere of forgetfulness and peace, and the little red-legged soldiers trot harmlessly about. But when I had settled it that the humiliation was all forgotten, I noticed that not a man, woman, or child dogged my steps to sell mementoes of that bitter battlefield, and that if I spoke in German to one of the townsfolk who was not in a business demanding the pleasing of strangers, I was told, with dry disrelish, that German was not understood.
Especially in Bazeilles, a suburb of Sedan, was there magnificent fighting in that fateful battle; and to many people it will mean more that De Neuville’s “Les dernieres Cartouches” is located here than that the battle marked the downfall of Napoleon the Third. Thus one may, it seems, win fame by the making of pictures, as well as by the making of surrenders.
I was fortunate in entering the forest from the side of France, because from here there is only the diligence; and, as to the charm of Europe, it is still true that they who seek it diligencely shall find it.
I went out before breakfast to arrange for the box seat with the driver of the diligence; an extraordinarily small vehicle considering that it was intended for carrying the public, and yet quite large enough, as it turned out, to carry the very few of the public, farmers or woodsmen, who wanted to go.
It was some time after leaving Sedan before the actual forest was reached. A long white road leads up, and a long white road twists down, and a valley village is reached-Givonne, the center of the French position on the battle day, and on that account possessing a dignity which its aspect would not otherwise command. Continuing, trees more and and more take the place of fields; yet always in Ardennes one is likely to come where peasants arduously enforce a living from the meagre land. The Belgian frontier is passed, and scores of trees, toppled over by a recent hurricane, show that the forest is not always a place to lose and neglect the creeping hours of time, but has likewise a savageness in its nature which both Shakespeare and Ariosto recognized.
Oak and beech and aspen and willow, heath and pasture, a lone village or some solitary inn, the ever-recurring forest greenery hemming the long white roads, and the town of Godfrey of Bouillon is reached, and the diligence rattles noisily under the silent walls of the great castle.
It was tremendously impressive to realize that the castle from which the great King of Jerusalem went forth to the Crusades that made him immortal was still existent, and that I was actually looking at it. The name of Godfrey of Bouillon had been familiar from boyhood, and yet I had never thought of there being any castle of his name. Bouillon is never mentioned in books except as a name of centuries past; yet here it is, dark, frowning, dignified, and very, very old.
The castle and town of Bouillon are nooked in a bending hollow with the Semois sweeping circumfluent, like the Lehigh at Mauch Chunk. Lofty hills rise on either side; and from its rocky perch upon a river-bound peninsula the castle looks down at the town.
At the hotel I early met with an example of the eternal differences that come from view-points variant, for “This town is unfortunately,” said my host, with wistfulness, “off the beaten track.” As if that could be a misfortune!
As he mounted the stair to show me to the room to which the third Napoleon was brought after the surrender, “The Emperor,” said he, explanatorily, but in innocence of any knowledge of our expressive Americanisms, “was in Bouillon after Sedan.”
A Godfrey goes out from Bouillon to endless fame; a Napoleon goes out from Bouillon to die in humiliation. And it is . really astonishing that this still solitary, this still isolated region should for centuries have had intermittent connection with names great in history or in literature-Louis XIV, Henry of Navarre, Charlemagne, Godfrey of Bouillon, Richelieu, the third Napoleon, Ariosto, Shakespeare, Scott. In this section of the forest, with Bouillon as its center, there are probably no more people than there were at the time of the first Crusade; yet it is near great routes of travel, near great cities.
Ordinarily, a castle in a forest would seem an incongruity; but here it is of the forest’s very essence. One might almost say that the castle of Bouillon has been here longer than the forest, so many decades before Godfrey’s time was its construction begun-certainly, it has been here for longer than any tree now standing-and in the time of Quentin Durward a De la Marck, a wild boar of Ardennes, actually held it. For Godfrey mortgaged it (modern touch!) to secure money for his expedition to Palestine, and on that account it drifted, after his death, into devious channels of possession.
I have never received so tremendous an impression of feudalism as in this ancient pile, rising black above the white houses of the town. It is not that it displays the magnitude, the parade, of a Heidelberg or a Loches, but that so much of the outward has been shorn away in the course of successive ownerships and sieges as to concentrate attention upon the immense extent of the subterranean. Partly, the impression was due to the situation of the castle, in the midst of the lonely forest and hills, and partly to my going through it when no one else was within its vast extent but the ancient guide. The seneschal of a ruin should always be an old man, for congruence, or a young girl, for contrast.
There is a vivid terror in the heart of the rock, tunnelled and dungeoned far below the castle walls. There are doleful cells of darkness, and torture chambers, and a dreadful oubliette which yields the secrets of its construction to a great blaze of paper, and ever the passages go in grim convolutions. “The very devil couldn’t find his way out of here,” said the old man chucklingly; and then his voice shrilled on about the kings and dukes and their doings in the dark backward of time. “It is like an ant-hill,” he quavered, leading the way into a tunnel which went twisting far downward. And ever and anon we were for a brief space above, and there were fair and lovely views from casement or battlement above those haunting secrets. And on the ramparts the old man swung the clapper of a bell which has knelled to war or to church throughout nine centuries.
Yet feudalism was not all terror and severity. It was terror for enemies and protection for friends. A street which still follows its ancient line and clings at the base of the castle rock shows by its very attitude of trustfulness that it considered the castle to be its defender. And, in those old times, should one’s natural protector fail to protect, any inhabitant of Ardennes seeking justice needed but to go to the palace of the Bishop of Liege, and knock thrice with the great swinging iron that was bolted upon the door, and the bishop himself would answer the summons, and hear the complaint, and demand an explanation from the oppressor, and render a decree; and that decree did not lightly pass unheeded, for behind it stood the power of the Church.
The town of Bouillon is comparatively modern; but there are still old houses hidden unobtrusively away, and still there stand six-sided towers marking corners of the old town walls. And there are queer places to unearth: ancient caves in the rock, and remains of primitive structures, beneath or behind houses of more recent times. By mere chance, in a little shop in one of these newer buildings, I saw a hollow in the rock, and there was a running spring, and beside it was an old-time officially inscribed stone of the long-past Duchy of Bouillon, and in the stone was a hole for the measurement of money as a safeguard against clipping.
Life is placid in Bouillon. Business is not importunate, a wagon seldom rattles over the stonepaved streets, boys lean interminably over the ancient bridge of stone, gossiping women are ever kneeling by the riverside, giving what is next to godliness to the linen of the town. The very funerals are tranquilly picturesque, for the mourners still follow on foot up the avenue of trees, whose clipped tops lace and intertwine, which once led to a monastery, long since destroyed.
But if one does not care for the town of Bouillon, in five minutes he may be hundreds of years away, in the castle, or hundreds of miles away, in the forest. And in spite of the interest of the home of Godfrey it is principally for the forest that one comes here.
And it needs to be said that Shakespeare undoubtedly meant this Ardennes-this Arden, as he anglicized the name-for it has been generally claimed that he had in mind an imaginary forest or a little Arden in England.
But he had in mind no imaginary forest. He loved history, and he loved geography, and he therefore loved to give his plays a local habitation and a name. He loved to specify Venice and Padua and London, the Temple Gardens, Black Angers, and the Forest of Arden. Had he wished to write of the forest of an imaginary Zenda he was sufficiently master of the language to have made his meaning clear.
He may never have seen Ardennes, but at least he was acquainted with the forest from cotemporaries and predecessors. And it is possible that he was here. He travelled; and no one knows, no one will ever know, whither he travelled or what he saw. And assuredly it will not be declared that he, of all men, would never step aside from what were even in his day the familiar routes.
And it is certain that he did not mean the little Arden in England. That there is an English Arden is not to be wondered at, for many a geographical name was carried across the Channel from the Continent; but everything in the play points to a region at the edge of France and not separated from it by water.
Shakespeare constantly writes as if the forest is on the French border. He portrays Rosalind and Celia as wearily walking to it from their French home. His description of Duke Frederick leading his army to the skirts of the wood clearly points out that he means the Ardennes that is beside France.
In all this Shakespeare follows Thomas Lodge. Lodge wrote a novel about Ardennes, a story with whose lilting prolixity one might even now be happy if the other charmer were away. With Lodge, “Rosylind and Alinda travailed along the Vineyards, and by many bywaies; and at last got to the Forrest side, where they travailed by the space of two or three daies without seeing anie creature, being often in danger of wilde beasts, and payned with many sorrowes.”
Lodge’s story quickly ran through several editions, and Shakespeare dramatized it, and thus gave it popularity anew. And, of course, it was no more plagiarism than is the dramatization of the popular novel of today.
Ardennes, on the borders of France, and Rosalind and Celia, and the brother dukes, and the wrestling, and the banishment, all are Lodge’s, with some of the names a trifle changed for effectiveness. But the inimitable Jacques and Touchstone and the splendid poetry of it all are Shakespeare’s own.
Seldom have I spent more enjoyable days than those in Shakespeare’s Arden. For charm and romance are still there, and the boar and the wild deer are there, and Corin and Phebe and Silvius, and shepherds with their cotes, their flocks, their bounds of feed. The banished duke and his companions, in modern guise, still hunt the forest glades, and “fleet the time carelessly, as they did in the golden world.” Nay, I even met Touchstone himself, as if he had stepped from an old Shakespearean print. “A fool, a motley fool.” Thus he was garbed, with cap of points and clothing striped. But, alas! he would naught of wit or philosophy. He had married and settled here, as Shakespeare foresaw, and marriage had changed him, as it has changed many another man. Where be his jibes now, his -flashes of merriment? Yet he would have me know that he worked hard, here in his garden, and was content; and thereby he seems to have attained the highest of philosophy, after all.
I was in Ardennes in the idyllic glory of early spring. A tender warmth was in the air, and the forest, after the long unresponsiveness of winter, was with shy generosity giving promise of loving opulence to come. The fields were pied with the earliest daisies, buttercups and violets painted the meadows with delight, the first birds were singing, and the trees were gently unfolding their first buds. It was the sweet and happy Arden of the sweet and happy comedy.
Guide-books and atlases use the term “Ardennes” with somewhat of unavoidable vagueness. Originally this forest extended not only over a great part of Belgium, but stretched also into France and toward the eastward. It is curious that at the very time that Shakespeare was writing plays Henry of Navarre marched a force to the capture of Sedan, which was then within the forest boundary. Clumps of Ardennes woodland still break the levels of Champagne; there are remains of it in Luxembourg; and there are still great forest masses in central Belgium, dotted with cities and intersected by railways. But the present center of Ardennes is here, round about Bouillon, along the line of the Semois, and it comprises a wide area of hill, of river valley, of undulating plateau, of upland heath. And it is this very part, isolated as it still is, with which most of the great names that are connected with the forest have had their association.
Once in the forest, one is continually charmed by the hills and the river. Never, surely, was there another stream of such uncontrolled meanderings. The course of the Semois is a succession of great serpentining bends; and when you have for a long time missed it, and think that it has finally wandered away, it comes purring softly back, around some delectable bend.
It is a charming country for motoring, but the automobilist who penetrates here must cultivate resignation, for he will frequently find a well macadamized road end suddenly in a mere trail. Fully to enjoy this forest, one must be somewhat of a pedestrian, for many of the most charming routes are footpaths only; and so intricately do these paths convolute in making (contradictory as it seems) short cuts from village to village, that no one ever tries to direct a stranger beyond the first turn, but leaves him to proceed after that as fate and fancy lead. And it is delightful to wander at random through great groves of glimmering birch, past the brook that brawls along the road, the oak whose antique roots peep out, the rank of osiers by the murmuring stream; charming to be obscured in the circle of the forest and to know that it is the forest of Shakespeare.
The people who dwell in the little villages which are so sparingly interspersed are a simple, hardy folk, Walloons, descendants from an ancestry of bravery, and active, dark-featured, inclined to shortness, ready at times for gayety, but, as is natural to those who live in loneliness, mostly silent or of few words. And, in spite of the disappearance, as in most of Europe, of much of the distinctive costuming of the past, there are still the kirtle of green, the sash of blue or red, stockings of purple and shoes of wood, the agricultural blouse, the paniered back, and horses tasselled and belled.
The people are herdsmen, shepherds, farmers of the thinnish soil and woodcutters. Trees are grown in Ardennes for the market, as in other regions there are corn and oats. The forest is carefully cultivated and kept free from underbrush, and, although there are still many trees of great girth, :the larger part of the forest is not of huge growth.
The houses of the forest villages are broadgabled and low, and of stone that is black with age. Broad they must needs be, for under each roof is a heterogeneous huddle of men and women and children, cows and goats, rabbits and chickens, and geese and dogs. And it is in itself a proof of the length of time that this has been forest that the dogs bear a curious likeness to wolves.
Even in Bouillon itself-a place which, with its fewer than three thousand population, would elsewhere be deemed small, but which looms large as the principal town of what is left isolated of Ardennes-many a house is a Noah’s Ark in its population, although the newer look of the houses at first conceals the fact. After all, these people and their livestock have been living for centuries in friendly juxtaposition, and an inheritedly ingrained habit is not lightly lost.
“These are the hills, these are the woods, these are the starry solitudes; and there the river by whose brink the roaring lion comes to drink.” For Shakespeare even puts a lion here, and it has caused endless trouble. Scott, when he committed an anachronism or an anachorism, always appended a peccavi note; but Shakespeare, never; he divined what his commentators were to do in the way of notes and would not willingly add his own straws to the load of posterity.
As to that lion, it might be enough to claim poetic license; to point out that when Ariosto sent his Rinaldo through Ardennes, on his journey from Paris to Basle, he had him meet in this forest an uncanny monster with a thousand eyes. But Shakespeare frankly took his lion from Thomas Lodge.
In this forest of Shakespeare’s the regular roads and paths may often be followed for miles without meeting a human being. There is a deep loneliness away from the villages; and, as Touchstone remarked, “In respect that it is solitary, I like it very well.” From lofty summits the view seems one of wilderness illimitable. When the uncertain glory of an April day changes to sudden storm, the rolling thunder goes echoing distantly among the hills. In the heart of the forest I have come unexpectedly upon a charming and solitary mill. One day I chanced upon a Trappist monastery. “It is desolate here in winter when the north wind blows,” said one of the monks drearily.
It seemed to me that it would be of peculiar interest to attend an Easter service in the very shadow of the castle from which the greatest of all Crusaders marched out for the recovery of that sepulchre without whose story there would be no Easter to celebrate. It was merely chance that had put me there at Easter time; and it was unexpected and unhoped for good fortune that, entirely to my surprise, gave not only an Easter service but also a Passion Play.
There were sixteen elaborately prepared scenes given by one hundred Biblically costumed characters or so.
The audience was not large, and the people found agreeable enjoyment. It did not seem to occur to them that the play bore religious significance; there was no irreverence; it was merely that they did not understand that reverence was expected; it was six long hours of singing and costumes, of picking out their neighbors beneath great wigs or behind false beards; it was a show in a showless town, and those who know only cities do not understand the pathetic excitement of such a condition.
And so, human nature being everywhere the same, the people enjoyed the representation with the unrepressed pleasure of children; they will soon enough learn to look unnaturally grave if the representation begins to attract annual visitors. The young girls were the sweet and natural part of it; the men and boys were inclined to frolic a little be hind the scenes as an offset to stage stiltedness.
And in all it was a striking experience to see the Jerusalem scenes thus acted and thus received under the walls of the castle of Jerusalem’s king.
Even at the regular Easter service, which preceded the play, the satisfaction had to come mainly from the feeling that it was an Easter service, and in that place. The church was abloom with the flowers from new Easter hats! Thus far has fashion penetrated. And the hats were of a kind that may be bought on Grand Street.
The service was of simple solemnity; the redclothed Suisse deeming himself a weighty part of it, as he decrepitly marched about, proud of being the only man in church permitted to wear a hat, and proud, poor old fellow, of a childish medal, pinned prominent, lauding him for “good conduct and morality.”
The church itself is Victorian, expressed in terms Walloon. “An unattractive building in an attractive location,” said the priest quietly, pacing the terrace with me. It was in my heart to reassure him, but I refrained; I could only speak of the general charm of the country.
But he seemed touched with a gentle melancholy. “Yes, monsieur, it is beautiful”; he shook his head, reflective, dubious; “it is, as you say, beautiful; but the people, to them it is only habitude.”
And so, having begun by finding Touchstone. I was thus to end by finding Jacques. For this is the Forest of Arden!