THE VILLAGE OF AUTEUIL

By Henry W. Longfellow

The sultry heat of summer always brings with it, to the idler and the man of leisure, a longing for the leafy shade and the green luxuriance of the country. It is pleasant to interchange the din of the city, the movement of the crowd, and the gossip of society, with the silence of the hamlet, the quiet seclusion of the grove, and the gossip of a woodland brook.

It was a feeling of this kind that prompted me, during my residence in the north of France, to pass one of the summer months at Auteuil—the pleasantest of the many little villages that lie in the immediate vicinity of the metropolis. It is situated on the outskirts of the Bois de Boulogne—a wood of some extent, in whose green alleys the dusty cit enjoys the luxury of an evening drive, and gentlemen meet in the morning to give each other satisfaction in the usual way. A cross-road, skirted with green hedge-rows, and over-shadowed by tall poplars, leads you from the noisy highway of St. Cloud and Versailles to the still retirement of this suburban hamlet. On either side the eye discovers old chateaux amid the trees, and green parks, whose pleasant shades recall a thousand images of La Fontaine, Racine, and Moliere; and on an eminence, overlooking the windings of the Seine, and giving a beautiful though distant view of the domes and gardens of Paris, rises the village of Passy, long the residence of our countrymen Franklin and Count Rumford.

I took up my abode at a Maison de Sante; not that I was a valetudinarian,—but because I there found some one to whom I could whisper, "How sweet is solitude!" Behind the house was a garden filled with fruit-trees of various kinds, and adorned with gravel-walks and green arbours, furnished with tables and rustic seats, for the repose of the invalid and the sleep of the indolent. Here the inmates of the rural hospital met on common ground, to breathe the invigorating air of morning, and while away the lazy noon or vacant evening with tales of the sick chamber.

The establishment was kept by Dr. Dent-de-lion, a dried up little fellow, with red hair, a sandy complexion, and the physiognomy and gestures of a monkey. His character corresponded to his outward lineaments; for he had all a monkey's busy and curious impertinence. Nevertheless, such as he was, the village ∆sculapius strutted forth the little great man of Auteuil. The peasants looked up to him as to an oracle,—he contrived to be at the head of every thing, and laid claim to the credit of all public improvements in the village: in fine, he was a great man on a small scale.

It was within the dingy walls of this little potentate's imperial palace that I chose my country residence. I had a chamber in the second story, with a solitary window, which looked upon the street, and gave me a peep into a neighbor's garden. This I esteemed a great privilege; for, as a stranger, I desired to see all that was passing out of doors; and the sight of green trees, though growing on another man's ground, is always a blessing. Within doors—had I been disposed to quarrel with my household gods—I might have taken some objection to my neighborhood; for, on one side of me was a consumptive patient, whose graveyard cough drove me from my chamber by day; and on the other, an English colonel, whose incoherent ravings, in the delirium of a high and obstinate fever, often broke my slumbers by night: but I found ample amends for these inconveniences in the society of those who were so little indisposed as hardly to know what ailed them, and those who, in health themselves, had accompanied a friend or relative to the shades of the country in pursuit of it. To these I am indebted for much courtesy; and particularly to one who, if these pages should ever meet her eye, will not, I hope, be unwilling to accept this slight memorial of a former friendship.

It was, however, to the Bois de Boulogne that I looked for my principal recreation. There I took my solitary walk, morning and evening; or, mounted on a little mouse-colored donkey, paced demurely along the woodland pathway. I had a favorite seat beneath the shadow of a venerable oak, one of the few hoary patriarchs of the wood which had survived the bivouacs of the allied armies. It stood upon the brink of a little glassy pool, whose tranquil bosom was the image of a quiet and secluded life, and stretched its parental arms over a rustic bench, that had been constructed beneath it for the accommodation of the foot-traveller, or, perchance, some idle dreamer like myself. It seemed to look round with a lordly air upon its old hereditary domain, whose stillness was no longer broken by the tap of the martial drum, nor the discordant clang of arms; and, as the breeze whispered among its branches, it seemed to be holding friendly colloquies with a few of its venerable contemporaries, who stooped from the opposite bank of the pool, nodding gravely now and then, and ogling themselves with a sigh in the mirror below.

In this quiet haunt of rural repose I used to sit at noon, hear the birds sing, and "possess myself in much quietness." Just at my feet lay the little silver pool, with the sky and the woods painted in its mimic vault, and occasionally the image of a bird, or the soft watery outline of a cloud, floating silently through its sunny hollows. The water-lily spread its broad green leaves on the surface, and rocked to sleep a little world of insect life in its golden cradle. Sometimes a wandering leaf came floating and wavering downward, and settled on the water; then a vagabond insect would break the smooth surface into a thousand ripples, or a green-coated frog slide from the bank, and plump! dive headlong to the bottom.

I entered, too, with some enthusiasm, into all the rural sports and merrimakes of the village. The holy-days were so many little eras of mirth and good feeling; for the French have that happy and sunshine temperament—that merry-go-mad character—which makes all their social meetings scenes of enjoyment and hilarity. I made it a point never to miss any of the Fetes Champetres, or rural dances, at the wood of Boulogne; though I confess it sometimes gave me a momentary uneasiness to see my rustic throne beneath the oak usurped by a noisy group of girls, the silence and decorum of my imaginary realm broken by music and laughter, and, in a word, my whole kingdom turned topsyturvy, with romping, fiddling, and dancing. But I am naturally, and from principle, too, a lover of all those innocent amusements which cheer the laborers' toil, and, as it were, put their shoulders to the wheel of life, and help the poor man along with his load of cares. Hence I saw with no small delight the rustic swain astride the wooden horse of the carrousal, and the village maiden whirling round and round in its dizzy car; or took my stand on a rising ground that overlooked the dance, an idle spectator in a busy throng. It was just where the village touched the outward border of the wood. There a little area had been levelled beneath the trees, surrounded by a painted rail, with a row of benches inside. The music was placed in a slight balcony, built around the trunk of a large tree in the centre, and the lamps, hanging from the branches above, gave a gay, fantastic, and fairy look to the scene. How often in such moments did I recall the lines of Goldsmith, describing those "kinder skies," beneath which "France displays her bright domain," and feel how true and masterly the sketch,—

Alike all ages; dames of ancient days
Have led their children through the mirthful maze,
And the gay grandsire, skilled in gestic lore,
Has frisked beneath the burden of threescore.

I was one morning called to my window by the sound of rustic music. I looked out, and beheld a procession of villagers advancing along the road, attired in gay dresses, and marching merrily on in the direction of the church. I soon perceived that it was a marriage festival. The procession was led by a long orangoutang of a man, in a straw hat and white dimity bob-coat, playing on an asthmatic clarionet, from which he contrived to blow unearthly sounds, ever and anon squeaking off at right angles from his tune, and winding up with a grand flourish on the guttural notes. Behind him, led by his little boy, came the blind fiddler, his honest features glowing with all the hilarity of a rustic bridal, and, as he stumbled along, sawing away upon his fiddle till he made all crack again. Then came the happy bridegroom, dressed in his Sunday suit of blue, with a large nosegay in his button-hole, and close beside him his blushing bride, with downcast eyes, clad in a white robe and slippers, and wearing a wreath of white roses in her hair. The friends and relatives brought up the procession; and a troop of village urchins came shouting along in the rear, scrambling among themselves for the largess of sous and sugar-plums that now and then issued in large handfuls from the pockets of a lean man in black, who seemed to officiate as master of ceremonies on the occasion. I gazed on the procession till it was out of sight; and when the last wheeze of the clarionet died upon my ear, I could not help thinking how happy were they who were thus to dwell together in the peaceful bosom of their native village, far from the gilded misery and the pestilential vices of the town.

On the evening of the same day, I was sitting by the window, enjoying the freshness of the air and the beauty and stillness of the hour, when I heard the distant and solemn hymn of the Catholic burial-service, at first so faint and indistinct that it seemed an illusion. It rose mournfully on the hush of evening—died gradually away—then ceased. Then it rose again, nearer and more distinct, and soon after a funeral procession appeared, and passed directly beneath my window. It was led by a priest, bearing the banner of the church, and followed by two boys, holding long flambeaux in their hands. Next came a double file of priests in white surplices, with a missal in one hand and a lighted wax taper in the other, chanting the funeral dirge at intervals,—now pausing, and then again taking up the mournful burden of their lamentation, accompanied by others, who played upon a rude kind of horn, with a dismal and wailing sound. Then followed various symbols of the church, and the bier borne on the shoulders of four men. The coffin was covered with a black velvet pall, and a chaplet of white flowers lay upon it, indicating that the deceased was unmarried. A few of the villagers came behind, clad in mourning robes, and bearing lighted tapers. The procession passed slowly along the same street that in the morning had been thronged by the gay bridal company. A melancholy train of thought forced itself home upon my mind. The joys and sorrows of this world are so strikingly mingled! Our mirth and grief are brought so mournfully in contact! We laugh while others weep, and others rejoice when we are sad! The light heart and the heavy walk side by side, and go about together! Beneath the same roof are spread the wedding feast and the funeral pall! The bridal song mingles with the burial hymn! One goes to the marriage bed, another to the grave; and all is mutable, uncertain, and transitory.