By Julia Magruder.
Driving through the streets of Fontainebleau during the spring of the past year, our attention was attracted by a large gateway of white stone, above which we read in gilded lettering the inscription: “Hotel de Pompadour." Our party - one of whom was Mrs. Chanler (Amelie Rives) - had been several days in Fontainebleau, but neither guide nor driver nor obsequious hotel keeper had mentioned this house to us as one of the places of interest to strangers. We told our driver to stop, but he met our eager inquiries with a head shake of discouragement. This was indeed the veritable residence of Madame de Pompadour, now owned by the Comte de Gramont, but it was resolutely closed to all visitors and sightseers. The glimpses we caught beyond that fast-shut gate were tantalizing in the extreme. There were immense old trees with their trunks thickly matted with vines, and their branches weighted with a wealth of feathery green foliage, then in its spring prime, and beyond them glints of the white building were to be seen. Altogether the temptation to explore was irresistible, and we determined to see what could be done toward softening the heart of the concierge, whose snug little lodge was to the right of the great gateway and was approached by a small gate let into the stone wall. The old coachman looked on with a skeptical smile while we got out and rang the bell. It was promptly answered by the concierge accompanied by his little daughter and three small dogs, a pug and two terriers. The little brutes seemed to take it upon themselves to express, by their furious barkings, the repellent negation which we saw written in the faces of the man and child, even before our request was uttered.
When we asked if there were no possible conditions upon which three strangers from a very distant country could be admitted, we were met by an emphatic, No, sir. It is positively forbidden," and we were obliged to turn away, not, however, before we had caught a glimpse, through the open door, which made us more regretful than ever. The picturesque old French house, with its unostentatious front and long, low windows was absolutely charming, and to right and left were the most superb ,conifers, firs and larches and yews, which, in this damp climate, had matured and grown old in a state of perfect luxuriance unknown to us at home. The broad gravel walk that led to the front of the house formed a circle around a grass plot trimmed and clipped with extreme care, and bordered on the outer sides by a sloping hedge of magnificent shrubs that showed not a discolored leaf or a rusty twig, and that sloped down to a border of luxuriant geranium plants, not yet in bloom. At each side the curve of the shrubbery was broken by a little white gate whose posts were a dense mass of vines. Everything was in a state of the most perfect preservation, and it seemed a thousand pities that so fascinating a house should have no occupants. As we turned away and the gate was closed behind us with a bang, one of our party said wistfully:
"If a fairy gave me a wish at this moment I should ask that someone would offer me that house for the summer."
It was lightly said, and might have been forgotten but for an occurrence which recalled it very naturally the next afternoon. A friend living in Paris came out with his wife to propose to us to take a house with them for the summer, and Fontainebleau was suggested as being as good a place as any other. So the heads of the two establishments went out to look for a house. The Hotel de Pompadour was seen and, in the end, conquered, for within a day or two we got the news that it had been secured for our residence from the middle of May to the middle of October.
When we once more knocked at the little gate in the wall a very different reception awaited us. Obsequiousness had taken the place of the impregnable opposition shown in the first instance, and gates and doors alike rolled back and gave us willing admittance. The old house is really charming, not large from the front view, but spreading out unexpectedly into long wings, and counting up, in all, to about thirty rooms, besides the ample accommodation for servants above the stables. It is furnished in pure Louis XV style, and a good many of the original pieces of furniture owned by Madame de Pompadour are pointed out. In what is now known as the little salon (the grand salon has been added since Madame de Pompadour's day), there is a dainty old flowered screen with the garlands on it embroidered in faded silks of dulled harmonious tones, which it is said the great beauty had in constant use; and here, too, is the pretty old powder-chair with the back scooped out in a great semicircle to make way for the mysteries of the coiffeur. The quaint little writing table, exquisitely inlaid with porcelain, painted with roses and wreaths and loveknots of blue ribbon, is said to be another relic of the great lady, and all through the house there are reminders of her in the series of engravings that decorate the walls. Some of them are allegorical pictures representing the progress of art, some of science, some of music, some of literature, and all are dedicated, with many flourishes, by the various artists to their patroness, Madame de Pompadour. The little alcove at the head of the great stairway has been untouched since the hand of the great decorative painter Boucher traced there the delicate vines and leaves and flowers which he painted for Madame Pompadour at the same time that he did his decorations in the palace nearby. The panels on which the charming paintings are done are now getting old and loose in their places, but it is to be hoped that the day is still distant when these beautiful bits of color and drawing will have to give place to modern work. All the flooring of the house is like that of the palace, hard, polished oak, as perfect now as when it was put down.
In the grand salon we had constantly under our eyes two pictures of Madame de Pompadour in her youth and beauty - modern copies of old portraits. Standing before these it was impossible to realize the real character of the woman. It is a face of such girlish innocence, such guileless simplicity, that we found it pleasant to believe that these portraits were done before those fateful days when the spirit had entered into her which caused her to drive across the path of the royal hunting party in a carriage lined with pink, while she herself was dressed in rose-colored silk and lace, and to confirm the impression next day by repeating the act with the change to sky blue in the color of costume and background. It is said to have been these two pictures of her, set off by the delicate greenery of ferns and branches in that beautiful old forest which captured the heart of the king, a heart which, corrupt as it was, seems yet to have been less lost to a sense of decency than that of the beautiful young Madame d' Etioles, since he is said to have rebuked her, when she jeeringly showed him her husband's letter of remonstrance at her desertion, by saying as he finished reading it, "Madam, your husband is a very worthy man."
Opposite the gateway to the Hotel de Pompadour is the long stone wall of the palace gardens, and in that portion of it which directly faces the Pompadour entrance there is visible the outline of a gate which has been walled up. In the days of Louis XV this was constantly open, and in addition to it there is shown another walled-up door, leading out of the cellar, and said to communicate with an underground passage between the Hotel de Pompadour and the palace.
If one could only think of that old palace as the setting for an idyllic romance, without any of the hideousness of Madame de Pompadour's career of extravagance and vice, how perfect it would be! Never were there lovelier walks than under those great old trees, with their screening vines; never sweeter trysting places than the old stone seat in the lilac hedge and the ruins of the summer house, hung with ivy, that stands at the entrance to the beautiful French kitchen garden, with its borders of old-fashioned flowers and its fruit trees - heavy with peaches and pears and cherries - nailed against the walls.
The fact of our having in our party a painter, working indefatigably at her art, gave us all a strong source of interest and pleasure. In a secluded corner of the grounds she posed her model and worked for many hours a day. Here we had a rustic table, with books and writing materials and canvases and paints heaped up on it promiscuously; and sometimes one of us would read aloud while the model posed and the picture went forward; or, when the model rested, we had our afternoon tea brought out, and the gentlemen joined us with their cigars and newspapers, and so many pleasant hours were passed. The art student, mindful of her foregrounds, forbade the gardener to touch with his scythe the grass about this spot, where ox-eye daisies, buttercups and cowslips thrust up their heads and flourished in wild luxuriance. The walls nearby were covered with Virginia creepers, and the trees - locust and elm and silver poplar - were so exactly like those we had at home that we often laughed to look around us and see how it all reminded us of Virginia. And yet, ten paces off, through a break left purposely in the wall, was a tall marble column erected to Marie Antoinette, and fifty yards away was the palace of Fontainebleau, where we were shown, among other things, the charming bedroom and boudoir of the poor young queen; as well as the throne of the great Napoleon, the spot on which he stood to take leave of his guard, the table on which he signed his abdication and the bed in which he slept. This bed is an enormous gilded structure with a mirror let in the whole length of the side, into which he must often have gazed with a certain participation in the wonder which the whole world felt about him. We found this mingling of home and foreign associations very delightful, and the charm imparted by the presence of our French friends in those home-like surroundings made the thing complete. We had also daily jaunts in the forest, driving four-in-hand over the most perfect roads in the world, and wondering at the rich luxuriance of the leafage which made a shade so dense that, under the trees, high noonday was like twilight. Thence we turned with ease into the most beautiful fields to be imagined, where, on each side of the road, the crops were planted in long, narrow strips - wheat, oats, potatoes, cabbages, turnips and a sort of French clover, lighter and more delicate than ours. All these were kept separate with such a neat precision that as we looked to left and right from the top of the coach we felt, as someone said, that we were driving down the middle of an immense Roman sash. The pink clover blossoms, the yellow turnip flowers, the different shades of green and the riotous bloom of the poppies and bluets in the wheat made an accumulation of colors to be wondered at; and when, in the midst of this, we would halt to listen to the skylark singing far up in the blue, a dark speck just discernible against a passing cloud, it was surely enough to make one feel with the man who said:
"This world is very lovely; 0 my God, I thank Thee that I live."
Then, too, there were coaching parties by moonlight, when our horn would wake the echoes through the vast still forest, and the French ears that listened were regaled for the first time, probably, with the sound of negro melodies, camp meeting hymns, and corn-shucking songs, varied with airs more classical. But if these were novel sounds for French ears, these were assuredly novel sights for American eyes. One, especially, lives with great distinctness in the memory. Driving one night a rather rapid speed, we came out suddenly upon a little village. The inhabitants had all turned out to see a traveling show which had halted its wagon and put up its torches in front of long lines of benches arranged for the audience in the open air. The great lights on the stage showed a picturesque assemblage of peasants in their pretty costumes, and delighted children, while, lingering on the outside of the crowd, were easily recognized the artists –men, and women – who are so numerous in this region during the summer, and who were dressed (especially the women) with a daring picturesqueness that greatly embellished scene. They were evidently a Bohemian set, these artists, but they looked innocent and fun loving enough, seen so; and they clapped the wheezy tenor good humoredly, and laughed at the comic song of the unconsciously comic old prima donna, and tossed them sous from their own scanty stores, with a pleasant good will that was charming to see. We halted a long time in the midst of this gay scene, and turned from it reluctantly, while actors and audience waved us a gay good by, and returned to their respective interests, as we to ours.
Not very long afterward, when we had seen the leaves of the Virginia creeper redden and fall, and the cold rains of autumn turn them into a sodden mass beneath our feet, we left the Hotel de Pompadour – none of us probably, to see it again. And if this little sketch has conveyed even the slightest suggestion of the charm of that house and its surroundings, it will be understood that we turned our backs upon it with a lingering regret.
Originally published in Cosmopolitan Magazine. June 1891.