Caserne des gardes du corps



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Récit par Seth William Stevenson de sa visite au château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye

« Arrived at the Chateau of St. Germain, we were received with great friendship by Col. De B. whom we found en militaire, exercising the Company of the King’s Gardes du Corps, of which he is the acting Commandant. In this employment he has for some time past been kept six hours every day, on foot and on horseback ; a service of no little fatigue for the officer, who has the training of the squadron, composed as it is almost entirely of recruits : for the gentlemen who accompanied their bon paire des Gants (père de Ghent) as they punningly call the King, to and from Flanders, have on account of their fidelity been subsequently placed as officers in the Royal Army, now re-organizing. They are selected from families of noble origin, and of known devotion to the Royal cause ; and are for the most part as fine a set of fellows as one would desire to see : but so young, so volatile, so careless, and withal so proud of their rank as officers, and their dignity as body-guards-men, that to manage them properly can be no easy task. M. De B. however, has evidently acquired the method of bringing all these mettlesome and quarrelsome tempers [p. 75] into a practicable form of subordination, if not as yet into a perfect state of discipline. The native cheerfulness and liberality of his disposition, and the knowledge which he has acquired of men, manners, and events, operate in the regulation of his own conduct towards these new pupils, by the happy medium between over indulgence and excessive severity. He is beloved and respected by them all.
The Chevalier de Saint Louis pointed out to us a gentleman of his Company, not more than 25 years of age, decorated with several orders ; of whom he related some interesting particulars both of his bravery and devotion to the good cause. This young Frenchman, at that time in the Russian service, was the first to plant the allied standard on the walls of Leipsic, at the great battle of 1813. Being on Alexander’s staff, on that ever memorable day, he solicited and obtained permission to lead 50 chosen men to the attack of one of the gates of the city ; and with this gallant little band, though reduced to less [p. 76] than half its number by the enemies’ fire, before they could reach the top of the rampart, he succeeded in forcing an entrance for the assailant troops to enter the place. The immediate consequence to him was, that he was honoured with the Russian, Prussian, and Swedish orders ; and the further result, his being placed in the Gardes du Corps !
The avocations of the drill being finished, the Colonel conducted us to his apartments in the Castle, where we had the honour of being introduced to Madame De B. who received us with the utmost politeness as her husband’s friends, and with a hospitable cordiality as her fellow countrymen. After partaking of some refreshment, we were favoured with the Lady’s company in a walk through the castle. This building, the birth place and residence of several kings, is now in a most forlorn and dilapidated state. The substructure is of stone ; and, rising out of a deep and broad fosse, it has in this part all the massiveness and gloom of the castellated mansions of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. About midway from the base, the materials of which the exterior of the Palace is composed are of red and grey bricks, and it is evidently of later architecture : its lofty walls are encircled at this point of change with a balcony defended by an iron balustrade ; but all in so ruined and dangerous a condition as to make one pay somewhat dearly, in the agitation of the nerves, for the satisfaction which a noble prospect affords to the curiosity.
From this balcony, ranging through the long suite of apartments, small and great, that look out upon it, we saw nothing but the emblems of human grandeur in adversity – so lonely, dismantled, and woe-begone is now that friendly asylum, where the abdicated Majesty of [p. 77] England breathed forth the expiring sigh of « rooted sorrow, » and unavailing vexation. When, however, the manifold signs of that decay into which the Castle has fallen, were attributed, (and that too by Royatistes) to the scurvy treatment which it had experienced, during its recent appropriation as the barracks of the British troops, I made bold, for the information of such grateful folks, to offer a recollection or two which my mind still retained of the Castle of St. Germain, at the period of Napoleon's Consulate ; when it was nothing better than the cazerne of his guard, whom I had seen lounging on these same balconies, and of course committing the usual nuisances of military licence, and unrestrained mischievousness. Really, Messieurs les Gardes du Corps, it was, to say the truth, not much in my expectation, and I dare say as little in your own, at that time, to see the defenders of Louis le Desiré, in the undisturbed occupation of this ci-devant dépôt of the chosen veterans of Buonaparte! Nevertheless, such things have actually taken place ; and I am very far from being of the number of those who are sorry for the change. Be it remembered, however, that, in order to confirm this happy restoration, the Duke of Wellington and the British Army were under the imperious necessity of arriving here before the Guards of the King of France, and if in thus doing his Most Christian Majesty « a great right, » our thoughtless but not wrong-hearted countrymen, have done his castle « a little wrong ; » why, let it be a point of friendship, on your part, « to wipe all clean again, and say no more about it. »
What a spring of ideas forces itself on the mind, as one pursues in this dreary pile the endless maze of staircase [p. 78], hall, and corridor, and « passages that lead to nothing. » Methought, what would be the feelings of « the Stuart, » if, revisiting this mutable scene of earth, his wounded spirit could « walk in death ; » and still gifted with the mortal faculties of reminiscence and speculation, have comprehended the wondrous series of events, that brought hither the descendants of his once obedient people, to support in all just rights the great grandson of his royal brother and benefactor ! Among the faults of our Second James, arbitrary, bigotted, and
infatuated as he was, that of being devoid of the love of country, and of attachment for his English subjects, will not, I apprehend, be ranked by the impartial reviewer of his character and conduct.
On quitting the Palace, we directed our walk to the famous Terrace, which for the picturesque charms of the prospect, as well as for the great extent of landscape embraced in the coup d’œil, deserves the praises with which it has ever been celebrated. But I decidedly differ from the opinion expressed by Colonel De B. (in the national pride of heart inherent in a Frenchman), that it is even equal, and much less am I disposed to agree that it is superior (as he considers it), to the rich, the varied, the always novel beauties of the view from Richmond Hill, or from Windsor Castle. The alignement of this elevated promenade, from the Pavillion, (where Louis XIV is said to have been born) to the grand entrance into the forest, is upwards of a mile and a half. It is delicious to inhale the health that comes floating hither on the wings of the pure air, from the expansive plain which it commands. The sinuosities of the Seine, however, form the only really striking feature of the prospect : the spires of St. Denis and the cupola of the Pantheon, [p. 79] are the marks by which alone we trace the vicinity of the capital. Still, the situation of St. Germain is altogether so fine – so worthy of being the residence of Royalty, that one can imagine no reasonable motive which could have induced the « Grand Monarque » to exchange it for that of Versailles.
The hour of dinner drawing near, we returned to the Chateau. With the exception of our friend’s and another officer’s rooms, together with a suite belonging to the Duke of Grammont, this vast place is uninhabited ; and so intricate is its ichnography, that a person losing himself in the dark, in passing from one quarter of the building to another, would find it both difficult and dangerous to attempt regaining the clue, till the return of day light. Welcomed with a kind reception by our host and hostess, we passed an hour or two after
dinner in a most agreeable manner. The party consisted, besides ourselves, of two brother officers of the Colonel's, very gentlemanly young men, and great amateurs de musique. Madame De B. keeps up as much of the English mode of living as possible. With a flattering reproach to my friend and myself, for omitting the social insular custom of the table, she observed she anticipated the pleasure of drinking healths that day. The French, who boast so much of their polite assiduities to the sex, have no relish for, nor conception of that pleasing act of convivial gallantry – the ceremonial of drinking wine with a lady. I told Madame De B. that I recognized the hand of English neatness and good order in the state and arrangement of the apartments. « Yet no one (she remarked) but those who have kept house in France, can imagine the inconveniences and difficulties to be encountered, in the attempt to overcome, though in [p. 80] never so small a degree, the dirty and slovenly habits of French servants. » The Colonel, afterwards, speaking of what he laughingly denominated his wife’s miseries, acknowledged that his countrymen were sometimes most unaccountable folks, both in their ideas and actions. He then illustrated the subject with a few appropriate anecdotes, relating them to us with a glee which evinced his own correct idea as to the impression they were sure to make on our minds. Suffice it to say of these traits caractéristiques, that they pointedly served to shew the difference of perception between the two nations, in regard to the constituent qualities of what is called delicacy, in reference to expression and manners.
We finished our afternoon with a walk about the town, in which, however, there is little to interest the stranger, or apparently to accommodate the resident. The two or three only decent looking streets have a deserted appearance : no symptoms of business, and but a scanty shew of property : yet in this, among other places, our English émigrés, our economists flock together ; here they plant themselves and vegetate. Discontented with the state of their own country, they are still everlastingly grumbling at what they encounter with here : indulging in that waywardness of temper, which they so egregiously mistake for independence of spirit, they evince their patriotic opposition to the policy of their own government by openly eulogizing the system of Buonaparte ; and manifest their respect for the constituted authorities of the realm in which they are now domiciliated by ridiculing and abusing the Bourbons ! Yet, with all this language, (unseasonable and indiscreet to speak of it in the mildest terms) accompanied too by what the French call « une manière méprisante, » [p. 81] they wonder that they are not received with more consideration and cordiality ; and they incontinently proceed to denounce French society altogether, as equally devoid of hospitality, and unsusceptible of friendship : when the fact is, that they themselves neither study those points of urbanity, which can alone give them claims to the one ; nor do they take the trouble of shewing themselves possessed of those amiable qualities which are so peculiarly adapted to elicit and confirm the sentiments of the other.
After enjoying the refreshing air of a serene and cloudless evening, we retired well pleased with our day. The nights here are delicious : no damps, no noisome vapours. Such is the advantage which France possesses over England – in point of climate. Next morning before breakfast, we walked to the esplanade before the castle, and there found the Gardes du Corps already on horseback, and a General inspecting them. Though one of Buonaparte’s officers, he commands the district. Immediately after the second restoration of the King, a promise was held out to the little band of faithful soldiers, who had followed his Majesty to Ghent, that
they should all be advanced a grade in rank : that promised recompence, it seems, has not been yet bestowed. Several instances of favour have been shewn to old scholars of Napoleon (unimplicated in the last treasons) ; but to this system of conciliation (prudent no doubt) have not hitherto been conjoined any corresponding marks of attention and encouragement to those men of approved loyalty, who had so often risked life, and so long sacrificed property, in the Royal cause. With this small but honourable class it would appear, that « Virtue must be its own and only reward. » Possessed of these facts on [p. 82] the spot, it was no difficult matter to efface from my mind the erroneous impression, so industriously inculcated by some of our home politicians, that the present government of France was influenced by the spirit, and made subservient to the views of the Ultra Royalists !

After breakfast, we bent our course into the forest of St. Germain, which is upwards of eight leagues in circumference, occupying between two and three thousand acres, and presenting, in full perfection, the various diversifications of woodland scenery. The plantations chiefly consist of oak and beach ; but the timber, being suffered to remain in too crowded a state, does not grow to any considerable size. About a mile into the forest is a house called Les Loges : at the period of my first visit it was an academy for the education of young gentlemen, and where I passed several agreeable days in the society of my worthy friend H. I beheld its walls and turrets of conventual origin and construction with a pleasing – mourning emotion ; they reminded me of past enjoyments ; and they warned me of the rapid march of time. The present appropriation of this establishment is that of a Maison d’Education for the daughters of Members of the Legion of Honour ; an endowment of the Ex-Emperor, which does him honour ; and which is very properly supported by the Royal Government. « O si sic omnia ! » Would that Buonaparte’s institutions had in general been so deserving of commendation : how gratifying would the record of them be to that disposition which « nothing extenuates, nor sets down aught in malice. »
We were perpetually charmed in observing the effect of light and shade produced on the foliage, as, favoured with a serene and brilliant sky, we advanced into the [p. 83] heart, or ranged along the skirt of this vast wood. At intervals we find circular openings (called by the wood-men etoiles, or stars) : from these central points, four and sometimes six or seven paths radiate to a greater or lesser extent. In rambling through the different paths, our admiration is continually excited, either by the view of a beautiful country opening at their extremity, or by the luxuriant verdure of their branches, which intertwining form long alcoves. The tints of the embowering leaves, now sinking into a gloomy shade, now bursting into light and vivacity, as their degree of density renders them exposed or impervious to the sun, keep the eye unceasingly fascinated by the rapidity of transition or by the boldness of contrast. As we emerge from the forest, in the direction of the ancient and picturesque town of Poissy, the landscape becomes quite Arcadian. The course of the Seine, marked out by an extensive and elevated ridge of woodland is bordered with villages and country seats, whose walls of white stone, and roofs of blue slate, are in lively opposition to the green landscape. The stag and wild boar are hunted in this forest : we saw none of either ; indeed, « as to game » of any kind, it was little more than Boniface’s « couple of rabbits ». The Royal Gardes de Chasse seem to have here a very scanty charge compared with what generally devolves to the keeper of an English gentleman’s preserve.
Early in the afternoon we took leave of our friends at the Castle, and set out on our return to Paris. »

Stevenson, Seth William