THE MUSE OF THE DEPARTMENT
THE MUSE OF THE DEPARTMENT
HONORE DE BALZAC
On the skirts of Le Berry stands a town which watered by the Loire
infallibly attracts the traveler's eye. Sancerre crowns the topmost
height of a chain of hills the last of the range that gives variety
to the Nivernais. The Loire floods the flats at the foot of these
slopes leaving a yellow alluvium that is extremely fertile excepting
in those places where it has deluged them with sand and destroyed them
forever by one of those terrible risings which are also incidental to
the Vistula--the Loire of the northern coast.
The hill on which the houses of Sancerre are grouped is so far from
the river that the little river-port of Saint-Thibault thrives on the
life of Sancerre. There wine is shipped and oak staves are landed
with all the produce brought from the upper and lower Loire. At the
period when this story begins the suspension bridges at Cosne and at
Saint-Thibault were already built. Travelers from Paris to Sancerre by
the southern road were no longer ferried across the river from Cosne
to Saint-Thibault; and this of itself is enough to show that the great
cross-shuffle of 1830 was a thing of the past for the House of
Orleans has always had a care for substantial improvements though
somewhat after the fashion of a husband who makes his wife presents
out of her marriage portion.
Excepting that part of Sancerre which occupies the little plateau the
streets are more or less steep and the town is surrounded by slopes
known as the Great Ramparts a name which shows that they are the
highroads of the place.
Outside the ramparts lies a belt of vineyards. Wine forms the chief
industry and the most important trade of the country which yields
several vintages of high-class wine full of aroma and so nearly
resembling the wines of Burgundy that the vulgar palate is deceived.
So Sancerre finds in the wineshops of Paris the quick market
indispensable for liquor that will not keep for more than seven or
eight years. Below the town lie a few villages Fontenoy and Saint-
Satur almost suburbs reminding us by their situation of the smiling
vineyards about Neuchatel in Switzerland.
The town still bears much of its ancient aspect; the streets are
narrow and paved with pebbles carted up from the Loire. Some old
houses are to be seen there. The citadel a relic of military power
and feudal times stood one of the most terrible sieges of our
religious wars when French Calvinists far outdid the ferocious
Cameronians of Walter Scott's tales.
The town of Sancerre rich in its greater past but widowed now of its
military importance is doomed to an even less glorious future for
the course of trade lies on the right bank of the Loire. The sketch
here given shows that Sancerre will be left more and more lonely in
spite of the two bridges connecting it with Cosne.
Sancerre the pride of the left bank numbers three thousand five
hundred inhabitants at most while at Cosne there are now more than
six thousand. Within half a century the part played by these two towns
standing opposite each other has been reversed. The advantage of
situation however remains with the historic town whence the view on
every side is perfectly enchanting where the air is deliciously pure
the vegetation splendid and the residents in harmony with nature
are friendly souls good fellows and devoid of Puritanism though
two-thirds of the population are Calvinists. Under such conditions
though there are the usual disadvantages of life in a small town and
each one lives under the officious eye which makes private life almost
a public concern on the other hand the spirit of township--a sort of
patriotism which cannot indeed take the place of a love of home--
Thus the town of Sancerre is exceedingly proud of having given birth
to one of the glories of modern medicine Horace Bianchon and to an
author of secondary rank Etienne Lousteau one of our most successful
journalists. The district included under the municipality of Sancerre
distressed at finding itself practically ruled by seven or eight large
landowners the wire-pullers of the elections tried to shake off the
electoral yoke of a creed which had reduced it to a rotten borough.
This little conspiracy plotted by a handful of men whose vanity was
provoked failed through the jealousy which the elevation of one of
them as the inevitable result roused in the breasts of the others.
This result showed the radical defect of the scheme and the remedy
then suggested was to rally round a champion at the next election in
the person of one of the two men who so gloriously represented
Sancerre in Paris circles.
This idea was extraordinarily advanced for the provinces for since
1830 the nomination of parochial dignitaries has increased so greatly
that real statesmen are becoming rare indeed in the lower chamber.
In point of fact this plan of very doubtful outcome was hatched in
the brain of the Superior Woman of the borough /dux femina fasti/
but with a view to personal interest. This idea was so widely rooted
in this lady's past life and so entirely comprehended her future
prospects that it can scarcely be understood without some sketch of
her antecedent career.
Sancerre at that time could boast of a Superior Woman long misprized
indeed but now about 1836 enjoying a pretty extensive local
reputation. This too was the period at which two Sancerrois in Paris
were attaining each in his own line to the highest degree of glory
for one and of fashion for the other. Etienne Lousteau a writer in
reviews signed his name to contributions to a paper that had eight
thousand subscribers; and Bianchon already chief physician to a
hospital Officer of the Legion of Honor and member of the Academy of
Sciences had just been made a professor.
If it were not that the word would to many readers seem to imply a
degree of blame it might be said that George Sand created /Sandism/
so true is it that morally speaking all good has a reverse of evil.
This leprosy of sentimentality would have been charming. Still
/Sandism/ has its good side in that the woman attacked by it bases
her assumption of superiority on feelings scorned; she is a blue-
stocking of sentiment; and she is rather less of a bore love to some
extent neutralizing literature. The most conspicuous result of George
Sand's celebrity was to elicit the fact that France has a perfectly
enormous number of superior women who have however till now been so
generous as to leave the field to the Marechal de Saxe's
The Superior Woman of Sancerre lived at La Baudraye a town-house and
country-house in one within ten minutes of the town and in the
village or if you will the suburb of Saint-Satur. The La Baudrayes
of the present day have as is frequently the case thrust themselves
in and are but a substitute for those La Baudrayes whose name
glorious in the Crusades figured in the chief events of the history
of Le Berry.
The story must be told.
In the time of Louis XIV. a certain sheriff named Milaud whose
forefathers had been furious Calvinists was converted at the time of
the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. To encourage this movement in
one of the strong-holds of Calvinism the King gave said Milaud a good
appointment in the "Waters and Forests" granted him arms and the
title of Sire (or Lord) de la Baudraye with the fief of the old and
genuine La Baudrayes. The descendants of the famous Captain la
Baudraye fell sad to say into one of the snares laid for heretics by
the new decrees and were hanged--an unworthy deed of the great
Under Louis XV. Milaud de la Baudraye from being a mere squire was
made Chevalier and had influence enough to obtain for his son a
cornet's commission in the Musketeers. This officer perished at
Fontenoy leaving a child to whom King Louis XVI. subsequently
granted the privileges by patent of a farmer-general in remembrance
of his father's death on the field of battle.
This financier a fashionable wit great at charades capping verses
and posies to Chlora lived in society was a hanger-on to the Duc de
Nivernais and fancied himself obliged to follow the nobility into
exile; but he took care to carry his money with him. Thus the rich
/emigre/ was able to assist more than one family of high rank.
In 1800 tired of hoping and perhaps tired of lending he returned to
Sancerre bought back La Baudraye out of a feeling of vanity and
imaginary pride quite intelligible in a sheriff's grandson though
under the consulate his prospects were but slender; all the more so
indeed because the ex-farmer-general had small hopes of his heir's
perpetuating the new race of La Baudraye.
Jean Athanase Polydore Milaud de la Baudraye his only son more than
delicate from his birth was very evidently the child of a man whose
constitution had early been exhausted by the excesses in which rich
men indulge who then marry at the first stage of premature old age
and thus bring degeneracy into the highest circles of society. During
the years of the emigration Madame de la Baudraye a girl of no
fortune chosen for her noble birth had patiently reared this sallow
sickly boy for whom she had the devoted love mothers feel for such