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THE EDGE OF A FOREST
WHEN I left La Chapelle, I went to spend a short time at Coye, another little village a few miles distant. I lodged at a small inn, and my meals, morning, noon, and night, were served in the yard — a parklike inclosure screened from the highway by a thick hedge. Just inside the hedge was a row of young trees with their tops cropped off, so that they had thick heads of branches, and cast heavy shadows down on the tables set below. My table was built to encircle one of these trees, and was in a corner of the yard where lines of hedge reached out around a gravelly square of earth.
Thus I had to myself a little green room in the open air. There were several of these leafy alcoves in different parts of the yard, but most of the outdoor business of the establishment was done next the house, under a spread of canvas that slanted down from the building like a broad piazza roof. Beneath this shelter were three or four long tables, with rude benches to match. There the village folk liked to sit, and clink friendly glasses, and drink their wines. It was in the evenings and on Sundays that they loitered at the tables most and longest; and, at such times, dirty packs of cards were likely to be produced, and game after game played for penny stakes.
Coye lay on the outskirts of the Forest of Chantilly, and it was the forest which gave me the most pleasure during my sojourn; yet there were occurrences in the village itself not without interest. For instance, Sunday, I happened to be out on the street early in the afternoon, and was made aware that something unusual was going on by seeing a group of people fastening several white sheets up on a wall. This done, they trimmed the sheets with flowers, and in front of them improvised an altar out of a table, on which they arranged candles and more flowers, while below, on the ground, the table was flanked with many potted plants. Farther on up the street was another of these wayside altars, made in much the same manner.
Later in the afternoon, I noticed that the townspeople were resorting to a vesper service at the church, and I followed. The congregation on this particular occasion was largely made up of young girls dressed in white, the older ones enveloped from head to foot in voluminous, gauzy veils. Far up in front were the clergy with their robes and the altar with its decorations and color, and, beyond the altar, a triple stained-glass window, through which faint rays of rainbow-hued sunshine filtered. There were kneelings and risings, the rumble of the organ, Latin chants, the tinkle of bells — and at length it was over, and every one came out into the square before the church, where the pavement was meagrely strewn with horse-chestnut leaves. A procession formed, and, with numerous banners and streamers, marched singing down the street to the first altar.
It was a children’s procession, in which the girls were most prominent. The smallest of them were bareheaded, and wore circlets of daisies in their hair, and they had quantities of flower petals in little baskets on their arms and scattered them in bright handfuls, right and left, all along the line of march. There were two companies of larger girls — a junior company, the members of which had been first communicants a few weeks before; and a senior company, composed of those who had taken their first communion the year previous. The latter would not again put on the costumes they wore that day, unless it was to attend the funeral of a mate.
HOUSEWORK ON THE SIDEWALK
The gorgeously robed priest conducted a short service before the altar, with its candles burning dimly in the sunlight, while the children stood in regular order about, and a straggling crowd, mostly of women, looked on at a little remove. Presently the procession moved on to the second altar, where the ceremony was repeated, and then it returned to the church and disbanded. The affair was ended, the wayside altars were promptly dismantled, and nought remained to mark their places but a pavement strewn with shrivelling leaves and gay flower petals, which some of the street urchins were curiously picking up. Formerly much more was made of the ceremony of the Holy Sacrament, and the house-residents put up many altars all over the village, and the street was strewn thickly with flowers from end to end.
The annual inspection of horses occurred the next day on the square near the church, and the spot looked for the time being like a horse-mart. Every village steed was obliged to present itself — farm-horses, saddle-horses, and trotters — there were no exceptions; for the government must know exactly what there was to draw from in case of war. A squad of soldiers did the inspecting. They had a desk and books and papers in the shadow of a building, and the horses were, one by one, led before them to be measured and otherwise critically examined. Often they ordered the creatures to be trotted up and down to show their paces, and no animal left the square until a record had been made of its capacity and characteristics.
One afternoon, a few days later, a wedding party came to Coye. It included enough people to fill half a dozen or more coaches and omnibuses. They all alighted at one of the inns, and took possession of the tables in the garden, and every individual seemed to be in a whirlwind of haste to get something to drink. They ran hither and thither, and I never saw a crowd of peaceably disposed folk so excited. All the villagers who lived near came and looked on at the riot from the garden borders, eager to witness the tumult, and anxious to get a view of the bride and groom.
In France a marriage must take place before the civil authorities to be valid. The ceremony before the priest does not count except as a matter of sentiment. But all true Catholics ignore the civil marriage as far as possible. The necessary formalities of the ceremony before the village mayor at the town hall are gone through very quietly, and all the display is made at the church wedding. The latter takes place at morning mass, and at the close of the services the members of the wedding party resort to one of the village hotels and have a feast. Then they all pile into carriages and omnibuses, and go for a ride. At some convenient place they stop for liquid refreshment, and later return to the home village and feast again at the hotel. Afterward the dining room is cleared and they have a dance which continues till midnight.
Next day, at noon, the same party comes together once more to feast. The ride and the other pleasures are repeated, and the day ends, as before, with a dance. Sometimes the jollity extends over a third day, with the same programme. The expenses are shared between the families of the bride and groom.
During he festivities the bride always dresses in white and wars a long veil, and the groom, if he can afford it, buys a dress suit and a stovepipe hat for the occasion. It is the custom for the wedding guests to give presents, but, while these often mean a considerable outlay, they do not run into the burdensome extravagance which characterizes those of many American weddings. Really wealthy couples go on wedding trips more or less extended, while the poorer folk, who cannot even indulge in the middle-class luxury of a ride, simply go for a walk.
While I was at Coye one of the village shopkeepers died. The church bell tolled at intervals all the day following the night on which he passed away, and by the amount it tolled the neighbors knew whether the family was to pay for a first, second, or third class funeral. Until the body was taken from the house, candles and a crucifix were kept standing on a table near the remains, and some of the friends sat and watched through the night. On the day of the funeral the constable made a tour of the village and gave notice from house to house of the hour of the ceremony.
Eleven o’clock in the morning was the time appointed. The funeral was largely attended; and nearly every one was dressed in black. The last arrivals were the priest and a company of white-robed choirboys carrying a bier. On this the coffin was borne from the house and slid into a hearse which was in waiting. The hearse had open sides, allowing the pall to drape out over the wheels so that the corners could be carried by the pall-bearers. Many great bead wreaths were now brought from the house and hung all about the top of the hearse, and other mourning emblems of the same sort were set along the sides of the coffin. When these details had been arranged the choir-boys after some private squabbling among themselves, took up the empty bier and marched off, and the priest and his assistant followed; then came the hearse, and behind that, in a straggling march, the rest of the company. From doorways and from every side lane, little groups of curious lookers-on watched the procession as it wended its way to the church. There it paused for a short service, and then continued to the cemetery on the hamlet’s outskirts. After the final rites had been observed, the nearest friends retraced their steps to the village centre, where at the house of a sister of the deceased, they were provided with a dinner that in its generous quantity of food and drink, was decidedly more festive than funereal.
I made the acquaintance of a family living near my hotel who, for a good many years, had been residents of America. Monsieur and Madame Cezilly, before they retired to spend their last days in their mother country, had a store on Broadway, in New York. They had begun their career in America very humbly, worked hard, spent little, and they both constantly attended to business. Their trade grew, and their profits were every year larger, and at last they carried back to France a comfortable fortune. They sometimes regretted that they had not kept on in their New York store, and I fancy those active, successful years in America are the happiest they will ever know.
I was often at the Cezillys’ to lunch, and sometimes I went for long rides with them across the country or through the Forest of Chantilly, which was so near that you were in it at once when you passed through a door at the foot of the Cezilly garden. The part of the forest in which Monsieur Cezilly was just then most interested was a newly cleared tract where he had bought some wood. We visited this section one day on a forest ramble. The land was not entirely denuded, but the trees had been very much thinned out. Nothing was wasted, and no stumps were left. The tree-trunks were all cut off at the surface of the ground, and in the case of the larger ones the choppers dug about them and severed the roots instead of the trunk. The smaller trees and the larger branches were cut into cord-wood lengths, split and neatly piled, and all the brush was bound into bundles. Lastly, the chips and other odd bits were picked up, loaded on wheelbarrows, and piled here and there in big heaps. It was certain of these heaps that monsieur had bought, and after he had looked them over critically we went on, and entered one of the forest roads.
This road was unlike anything I have seen elsewhere. Every out-thrusting twig and branch on either side had been cut off, so that you walked between perpendicular walls of thick leafage. All the other forest roads and byways were the same. They were the more striking because they continued long distances without a turn, and the view down the diminishing perspective of these deep green channels sunk in the woodland, was quite enchanting. The forest was a vast network of such ways, and you could never go far without finding others crossing or parting from the one you were following. Indeed, they were so numerous and so much alike that, unless you were very familiar with the forest, you were sure to get lost in the woodland labyrinth.
After visiting a little lake in a forest hollow, and lingering on its shores for a time, we turned homeward. We took a more travelled way than the one by which we came, and on it met several carriages and horseback riders, and a tall, blue-frocked gamekeeper stalking along on foot, with a cane in his hand and a canvas bag at his side. Where the forest road joined the highway on the borders of Coye village, the passage of all teams was blocked by a heavy rail, supported at either side by a stout post. Every road entering the forest was guarded in like manner. Only persons who possessed keys, rented from the authorities at one dollar a year, were permitted to drive in the forest, and each time they went in or out they had to alight, unlock and push back a bar, and then replace it after the team had passed. In this and in other ways the government takes great care of its woodlands, and all the officials in the forestry service go through a systematic training before entering on their duties. They are instructed in every subject connected with the culture, preservation, and replanting of forest — the last of paramount importance. When a tract is cut over, it is methodically restored to woodland, while the destruction of trees is prohibited or restricted by law.
The humble folk of Coye were largely dependent on forestry for their livelihood, and I rarely went far in the woodland without hearing the sound of their axes. I liked to watch the workers in the lightly-shadowed, cut-off lands, splitting and piling cord-wood, and the men with great broadaxes, squaring the logs. At that season the woodmen were not felling any trees save the young lindens which had been left standing in last winter’s forest clearing. Their value lay chiefly in their bark, and they had been spared that they might be cut when they were sappy and easily denuded. The ground behind the workers was strewn with white poles and long, hollow strips of bark, and a scattering of branches full of withering green leaves. All the bark would later be cut into four-foot lengths, and carried down to a pond-side near the village, where it would be soaked and slit into narrow filaments. Much of the slitting and the sorting over afterward was done by girls and women, sitting under a row of poplars on the edge of the pond. By working from four in the morning till deep dusk, at nine or ten in the evening, an expert hand could earn sixty cents a day. When harvest time came, the linden strips were sold to the farmers, and used for binding their sheaves of grain.
Of all the folk I met in the forest, the most picturesque were a party of gypsies. They had established themselves near the edge of the woodland, with the open fields not far distant, and their two carts were drawn up by the roadside, and their two lean horses were fastened to a gate of one of the forest ways. One cart was painted green, with brown trimmings. It had several windows, and there was a stovepipe sticking out of the roof. The second cart was a poor affair, with nothing but holes in place of windows. A yellow dog, chained to a wheel of the first wagon, was busy beneath it licking out a pan. From the appearance of the roadside, you would think a wreck of some sort had occurred there. It was strewn with dubious looking bedding, harness, baskets, a broken chair, and a variety of battered cooking utensils.
The inhabitants of the wagons were an old woman, a man and wife, and six children. Two of the latter were absent when I first happened on the caravan, but they soon appeared — two little girls, with ragged dresses hanging to their heels and stringy hair falling over their faces. They brought with them a bag full of grass, which they had cut for the horses with sickles by the roadside. I had stopped to try to hold a little conversation with the man. While we talked, I sat on a convenient hummock slightly aside from the wheel-tracks, and the children came and lay down in front of me and looked on, and one of the little boys knotted a wisp of grass in a curious way on the end of his nose, making that feature look very like a big wart. The mother presently relieved me of a part of the audience by calling to her one of the small girls. Then she sat down on the ground, and had the child stand between her knees while she investigated the little one’s head and combed her hair.
Now occurred a diversion. A little bird that could not fly dropped down into the road from some nest up among the tree branches, and fluttered away into the brush. Immediately the gypsies were all on their feet, and the man and the six children promptly gave chase. The one little bird had no chance against so many, and they soon caught it and killed it. I suppose they would eat it later, though such a mite of a thing could not go far in so large a family. The episode was to me disheartening in its savagery. My sympathies were entirely with the bird, and I came away with no desire to pursue my acquaintance with the gypsies further.
The most enjoyable trip I made while at Coye was a drive with the Cezillys clear to the heart of the forest. I had already noted a certain architectural aspect in the forest paths and roadways, and it was quite in keeping to find at its very centre a little open, perfectly round, and a dozen or fifteen rods across. In the middle of the open was a broad circle of lawn, graded into a slight mound and capped with an enormous stone table. When there is a great forest hunt a big tent is erected to cover the whole lawn, and in it the French aristocracy, with divers princes and potentates from abroad, have splendid feasts, and the noblest of the guests gather around this huge slab of stone. But the spot was deserted and quiet at the time my friends and I visited it, and we chose to do our feasting in the shadows bordering the woodland. We spread blankets and cushions from our vehicle, and spent an hour in leisurely lunching and chatting, while our horse, relieved of its harness, ate its oats and then wandered about, nibbling here and there, and even venturing to crop the grass on the sacred central lawn, that had been trodden by no less a person than the Prince of Wales.
The forest was not at all wild. It was more suggestive of man’s handiwork than of nature’s. From where we were, at its centre, twelve roads struck off each at the same angle and pursued a perfectly straight course as far as the eye could reach. They were like so many spokes starting from the central hub of a gigantic wheel. If you had no other view than this of the forest you would think it entirely lacking in variety; yet it had many pleasant nooks and dells where you could get entirely away from the conventionality of these main arteries. In one such we stopped on our way home. It was an open glade in a ravine through which wandered a marshy stream. We all got out, and we loosed the horse’s check-rein and let him munch the roadside grass. Our dog, meanwhile, had run into a reedy pool near by to cool himself; and then appeared a keeper — an inexorable minion of the law — and said the dog must not be allowed such liberties — he would frighten the water-fowl — and, furthermore, he warned us not to let our horse graze by the roadside. That grass was a perquisite of his own.
The keeper seemed rather overpunctilious, yet the forest guardians are obliged to be alert, and in spite of all precautions, the tendency is for game to grow more and more scarce. There are too many hunters and poachers. The forest includes nine hundred thousand acres, and almost the whole of it is let to sportsmen in plots of various sizes at an annual rental of four dollars an acre. In its use as a hunting-ground it has its main value, though this income is largely augmented by the sale of the undergrowth, which is cut off in sections once in ten or fifteen years, and by the disposal at longer intervals of the full-grown trees.
Monsieur Cezilly with two other men rents four hundred and ten acres. The shooting season begins the first Sunday in September and continues into the next spring, and during that time monsieur and such of his friends as take pleasure in the sport spend many a day on his woodland reservation. The only time in the season that they are not allowed to hunt is when there is snow on the ground. It is the desire of every true sportsman to kill to any extent compatible with having the pleasure of killing prolonged right through the year, but in snow time they could track the game so easily that the hunt would not be “sport,” but slaughter, and they would shortly destroy all the game in the forest. Hence the prohibition.
Monsieur has a little cabin there in the woods, and he and his guest, fortified by the appetizing lunches madame puts up for them, are quite comfortable, whatever the weather. They never fail to replenish the home larder on their return with more game than the Cezillys themselves can eat, and the surplus is disposed of by sending it as presents to friends.
The first year monsieur had this hunting-ground, he killed three hundred red squirrels on it, and they have not been very plentiful since. They eat the game-birds’ eggs, and are regarded as a pest to be exterminated. Sometimes monsieur kills a fox, but the usual game is rabbits and pheasants.
The expense of the hunt is not, by any means, all included in the rental. In the first place, you cannot even carry a gun without buying each year a permit. Then you have to feed your pheasants, just as if you were keeping a henyard. Monsieur Cezilly and his two coadjutors have to pay a man to go daily to strew corn and leave water in the forest paths. In the spring more or less pheasants are bought for breeding purposes, at six dollars a pair, and later they purchase, at a round price, a good many young birds. Where the shooting borders cultivated fields, the hunters are liable for any damage their game does to the crops. Some farmers purposely plant cabbages and other vegetables near the woods to draw the rabbits out. Then, at the end of the year, they send in their claims for damages. To save trouble and expense of this sort, the renters often run a wire-meshed fence along the exposed boundaries of their shooting to keep the rabbits in.
The game preserves suffer a good deal at the hands of poachers. These gentry are fined and imprisoned if detected, but it is not easy to catch them. Pheasants are their favorite game, and they do their shooting mostly on moonlight nights or just at daybreak. They usually dispose of the birds at some public house, the landlord of which has a shooting permit, so that he can easily account for any birds he sells or has in his house by saying that they had come out of the forest, and he shot them on the village grounds; or he can say he bought them of some one who rents a hunting-tract in the forest, and who had killed more birds than he wanted for his own use. A few years ago a poacher was shot and killed by the forest keepers; but the stealing continues in spite of all the hazards.
Among the rest of the conditions applying to the forest hunting, the renters must keep strictly within their own boundaries in their shooting, and they must not kill the deer. Hunting the deer is reserved for the pleasure of the great aristocrats of the land. The Duc de Chartres is master of the stag-hunt, and, on such days as are appointed for that sport, a grand cavalcade of men and women starts out from his mansion, in the town of Chantilly, and wends its way into the forest. Accompanying this gay procession are forty or fifty big hounds, a dozen or so to a pack, held in leash by their keepers. Among the dogs is one more clever than any of the others — a master hunter — and when the company approaches the deer, this dog is loosed, and singles out one of the stags from the herd, and starts him running. Then the other dogs are released, and the chase is on. The hounds bay, the hunters gallop pell-mell along the forest ways and across the clearings, and there are shouts and laughter and bugle-calls.
If the stag does not give the hunters a long run, there is keen disappointment. A race of less than two or three hours is not a success from the sportsman point of view. In case the dogs bring the deer to bay too soon, they are called off, and the creature is given a fresh start. The hunt is not without its mischances, and often the stag turns on the pursuing hounds, and rends those that come within reach of its sharp antlers, and, it may be, kills some of them. When the deer is thrown down by the pack, a keeper runs in among the dogs, and kills it with a sword-thrust.
But most often the deer meets its fate in one of the little forest lakes which, sooner or later, its thirst impels it to seek. Into the water it plunges, and the dogs follow, and no matter in what direction it turns, the savage hounds block the way. Now the master of the hunt puts out in a boat, and manoeuvres to get in a position where he can shoot without danger to the people looking on from the near shores. The report of his rifle rings across the lake, the stag floats lifeless on the water, the hunters’ horns blow merrily the announcement of the creature’s death, and the body is dragged to land.
If the antlers are very fine, with many branches, they are cut off for a trophy to decorate the home of some favored one among the hunters. Of the venison, the gentry get no share. They hunted for the elation of the sport; and, besides, the meat of the frightened and heated creature, after its long run for life, is not very good. The keepers appropriate a few of the best cuts, and the hounds, which hitherto have been restrained in their frantic efforts to get at their quarry, are loosed, and they fall on the body, and tear and crunch and fight in a barbaric feast that leaves scarce a fragment or a bone behind. Then the noble gentry’s cup is full, and the lords and ladies come forward and make obeisance over the spot where the antlered deer lay a few minutes before, and some add a kiss of the hand to their bows and courtesies. This done they canter leisurely homeward through the forest, happy in the success which has crowned their efforts to kill the deer after a properly prolonged chase.