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THE FIELD OF THE CLOTH OF GOLD
I HAD read about it many times, and the romance of its name had always attracted me. I knew it was somewhere in France, but, further than that, my ideas of its location were very hazy, and when I chanced to learn at Calais that the famous “Field” was only fifteen miles distant, I at once determined to see it, and my spirits experienced an instant uplift. What would it be like? Surely it must be very beautiful with such a name!
Yet, in reality, its claim to the title has nothing to do with the attractiveness of the place itself. The christening occurred nearly four centuries ago, when Henry the Eighth was king of England, and Francis the First was king of France. The latter was anxious to gain the former’s friendship against Spain, which had designs on French territory. Henry, too, had ambitions for a slice of France, but at the moment his inclinations were amicable, and the two monarchs were mutually pleased with the idea of meeting and cementing their friendship. The cementing was to be done, not only by discussion of individual interests, and by treaties solemnly drawn up and sealed, but by revels and pageantry on a grand scale. The kings vied with each other in arranging that the occasion should be superlatively resplendent. All manner of expense and prodigality were lavished on the show, and some of the knights and gentlemen were so superbly dressed that they were said to have spent their entire fortunes in attiring themselves for this one celebration.
The neighborhood of Calais was chosen as a convenient place of meeting, and there, on a broad plain, the two kings came together in June, 1519, and were companions, they and their attendant hosts, in nearly three weeks of merrymaking, that were full of ceremony, gay processions, and all sorts of feats of arms. Sham castles had been built and temporary chapels erected, and fountains ran wine which was free as water to all comers; there were silk tents, gold lace, gilded statues, and a most gorgeous assemblage of lords and ladies; and, finally, magnificent above all the rest, there were the kings and queens of France and England, and the great Cardinal Wolsey. No wonder, with all this pomp and glitter, that the spot should be known ever after as the “Field of the Cloth of Gold.”
As for the outcome of this grand display of kingly affection and interchange of fine words, no one gained anything. It was a waste of energy. The friendship which had been so laboriously and ostentatiously “cemented,” proved to be a good deal of an illusion, and very shortly afterward the two kings were at war, each bent on doing as much damage to the other as possible.
I was told that the best way to reach the old meeting-place of the kings was to go by rail to a place called Bellingham, where I would find myself hardly more than a mile from the renowned “Field.” On the day I made the journey, I reached Bellingham station at noon. As luck would have it, I alighted from the train uncommonly hungry, and felt I must have a lunch before I started on a tramp that, with its loitering and its asides, might last for several hours.
I supposed I should find a village near the station, but it stood lonely on a wide, cultivated plain. The chances of getting anything to eat seemed slim, and this made me the more ravenous. My only hope lay in the family that lived in the little brick station. This family consisted of three members as I saw it — an old woman, a middle-aged woman, and a young girl, though perhaps I ought to include a goat that was feeding near by. The girl was moving the goat to a fresh tethering-place when the train came in, but after it left she sat down in the station doorway and occupied herself in petting a maltese cat.
I was observing all these things rather disconsolately, and wondering how, with the few French words at my command, I could make an intelligible appeal for food, when I noticed that, just across the railroad tracks, stood a black little shanty. It had lace curtains at its one tiny window, and on a board tacked up in front was the word “Buvette.” I did not know what buvette meant, but my hunger suggested that the building might be some sort of a restaurant. I went over to investigate, and, sure enough, there was a short counter inside, and behind it some shelves adorned with three or four bottles.
The girl in the station doorway had been watching me, and now she left her cat and came running across the tracks and followed me into the shanty. She promptly stepped behind the counter, and when she saw me regarding the bottles on the shelves, she smiled and said something in French. I shook my head. The contents of the bottles may have been entirely harmless, but I was uncertain as to their real nature. I tried to explain what I wanted, but the girl could not understand the kind of French I improvised. Still, by perseverance and the help of the language of signs I at length made it clear to her that I would like a glass of milk and some bread and butter.
ON THE FIELD OF THE CLOTH OF GOLD
Her face brightened, and she trotted over to the station. Soon she reappeared, carrying a jar-like pitcher of milk and half a loaf of coarse bread. She said they had no butter and I suspect the milk was goat’s milk, but it was very much better than nothing, and I left the buvette a good deal refreshed.
I now started in earnest to seek the Field of the Cloth of Gold. A rough farm road led in what I judged to be the right direction and I followed it until, after a time, I met a soldier in a rainbow uniform. I showed him a paper on which I had the name of the “Field” written in French. We then held a little conversation on the subject. He shouted French at me, and I shouted English at him — for it seems natural to raise one’s voice when one is not understood. But we had to give up trying to deal with the subject minutely, and in the end the soldier simply waved his hand around to indicate that there I was right on the spot, and then with polite adieus he strode on his way.
I sought a hillock and sat down to look about. I was on an open, slightly rolling plain — a vast expanse of unfenced green fields, growing to wheat, sugar-beets, and other crops. On this plain, at long intervals, there were little wooded villages whence came the peasant tillers of the soil every morning and to which they returned every evening. A half mile distant was a public road. It stretched away with endless straightness over the long, low waves of the plain, and this road, as far as one could see in both directions, was lined with an avenue of clean-trunked elms.
Aside from the villages in the groves, and the tree-lined road, and a rude windmill crowning a near swell, the plain was almost unbroken. The sun shone with a dreamy heat, and a light breeze blew that made the grain-fields, in which the slender stalks were just heading, break into green billows. The flies buzzed about me, there were big beetles blundering through the grass, and the air was melodious with bird songs.
In a near field a man and a woman were hoeing turnips. In another field was a group of a dozen blue-gowned women, all in a line on their knees, weeding. In still another field, not far away, a man was harrowing, and on the borders of the field sat a spectacled old woman sewing. At her side was a basket that I suppose must have contained the family lunch. The prevalence of women on the plain gave it a very domestic air, and this, added to the rustic peacefulness of the scene, made it difficult to realize that right there was held, long ago, what was perhaps the most gaudy and famous tournament the world has ever known. That it should be so tranquil and so like any other plain was a little disappointing. No monument has been erected or anything whatever done to make the place conspicuous, and such pilgrims as seek out this historic spot find the gentle, undulating farmlands with the golden name wholly in the possession of nature and the plodding peasantry