Having left the pit, we went in the direction of Loubressac, to which village my companion belonged. While still upon the causse a spot was reached where a small iron cross had been raised. The stone pedestal bore this inscription:
'SOUVENIR DE HELENE BONBEGRE, MORTE MARTYRE EN CE LIEU EN 1844. VIEILLE-ESCAZE ET LAVAL ONT FAIT CONSTRUIRE CETTE CROIX. PRIEZ POUR CES DEUX BIENFAITEURS.'
The old man knew Helene Bonbegre when he was young, and he told me the tragic story of her death on this spot. She was going home in the evening, and her sweetheart the blacksmith accompanied her a part of the distance. They then separated, and she went on alone. They had been watched by the jealous and unsuccessful lover, whose heart was on fire. Where the cross stands the girl was found lying, a naked corpse. The murderer was soon captured, and most of the people in the district went to St. Cere to see him guillotined. It was a spectacle to be talked over for half a century. The blacksmith never forgave himself for having left the girl to go home alone, and it was he who forged the cross that marks the scene of the crime and sets the wayfarer conjecturing.
The peasant changed his ideas by filling his pipe. He smoked tobacco that he grew in a corner of his garden for his own use, and which he enjoyed all the more because it was tabac de contrebande. He gave me some, which I likewise smoked without any qualm of conscience, and thought it decidedly better than some tobacco of the regie. He lit his pipe with smuggled matches. Had I been an inspector in disguise, I should never have made matters unpleasant for him; he was such a cheery, good-natured companion. He had brought up his family, and had now just enough land to keep him without breaking his back over it. He was quite satisfied with things as they were. I did not ask him if he was a poacher, but took it for granted that he was whenever he saw a good chance. Almost every peasant in the Haut-Quercy who has something of the spirit of Nimrod in him is more or less a poacher. Those who like hare and partridge can eat it in all seasons by paying for it. Occasionally the gendarmes capture a young and over-zealous offender, but the old men, who have followed the business all their lives, are too wary for them. They are also too respectable to be interfered with.
At Loubressac I took leave of my entertaining friend, but not before we had emptied a bottle of white wine together. It was a vin du pays, this district having been less tried by the phylloxera than others farther south and west. I was surprised to find white wine there, the purple grape having been almost exclusively cultivated for centuries in what is now the department of the Lot.
In the room of the inn where I lunched there were four beds; two at one end and two at the other. There was plenty of space left, however, for the tables. The rafters were hidden by the heads of maize that hung from them. The host sat down at the same table with me, and when he had nearly finished his soup he poured wine into it, and, raising the plate to his lips, drank off the mixture. Objectionable as this manner of drinking wine seems to those who have not learnt to do it in their youth, it is very general throughout Guyenne. Those who have formed the habit would be most unhappy if they could not continue it. Faire chabron is the expression used to describe this sin against good manners. The aubergiste was very friendly, and towards the close of the meal he brought out a bottle of his old red wine that he had treasured up 'behind the faggot.'
Before reaching this village I had heard of a retired captain who lived here in a rather dilapidated chateau, and who was very affable to visitors, whom he immediately invited to look through his telescope, which, although not a very large one, had a local celebrity, such instruments being about as rare as blue foxes in this part of the world. Conducted by the innkeeper, I called upon this gentleman. The house was one of those half-castellated manors which became scattered over France after the Renaissance, and of which the greater number were allowed to fall into complete or partial ruin when the territorial families who were interested in them were extinguished or impoverished by the Revolution. They are frequently to be found in Guyenne, but they are generally occupied by peasants either as tenant-farmers or proprietors; two or three of the better preserved rooms being inhabited by the family, the others being haunted by bats and swallows and used for the storage of farm produce. It suited the captain's humour, however, to live in his old dilapidated mansion, scarcely less cut off from the society that matched with his position in life than if he had exiled himself to some rock in the ocean.
The ceremony of knocking or ringing was dispensed with for the sufficient reason that there was neither bell nor knocker. We entered by the open door and walked along a paved passage, which, was evidently not held as sacred as it should have been by the roving fowls; looked in at the great dark kitchen, where beside the Gothic arch of the broad chimney was some ruinous clockwork mechanism for turning the spit, which probably did turn to good purpose when powdered wigs were worn; then ascended the stone staircase, where there was room for four to walk abreast, but which had somewhat lost its dignity by the balusters being used for hanging maize upon. Presently we came to a door, which the aubergiste knocked sharply with his knuckles.
There was a sound of footsteps within, and then the door opened. I was standing before a rather florid man of about fifty, with close-cropped hair, a brush moustache, and a chin that seemed undecided on the score of shaving. He wore a flannel shirt open at the throat, and a knitted worsted tricot. This was the captain. He evidently did not like Sunday clothes. When he settled down here, it was to live at his ease, like a bachelor who had finished with vanities. But although no one would have supposed from his dress that he was superior to the people around him, his manners were those of a gentleman and an officer who had seen the world elsewhere than at Loubressac. The simple, easy courtesy with which he showed me his rooms, and pointed his telescope for me, was all that is worth attaining, as regards the outward polish of a man. This was so fixed upon him that his long association with peasants had taken none of it away. The few rooms that he inhabited were plainly furnished; in others were heaps of wheat, maize and beans. Passing along a passage I noticed a little altar in a recess, with a statue of the Virgin decked with roses and wild flowers. 'C'est le mois de Marie,' said the captain. He lived with a sister, and she took care that religion was kept up in the house.
It being the Fete-Dieu, preparations were being made in the village for the procession that was to take place after vespers. Sheets were spread along the fronts of the houses, with flowers pinned to them, and reposoirs had been raised in the open air. I did not wait for the procession, as I expected to be in time for the one at the next village, Autoire. I took a path that led me up to the barren causse, from which the red roofs of Autoire soon became visible under an amphitheatre of high wooded hills.
As I approached the little village, the gleam of white sheets mingled with the picture of old houses huddled together, some half-timber, some with turrets and encorbelments, nearly all of them with very high-pitched roofs and small dormer windows. The procession was soon to start. I waited for it at the door of the crowded church, baking in the sun with others who could not get inside, one of whom was a woman with a moustache and beard, black and curly, such as a promising young man might be expected to have. The number of women in Southern France who are bearded like men shocks the feelings of the Northern wanderer, until he grows accustomed to the sight. The cure was preaching about the black bread, and all the other miseries of this life that had to be accepted with thankfulness. Presently the two bells in the tower began to dance, and the rapid ding-dong announced that the procession was forming. First appeared the beadle, extremely gaudy in scarlet and gold, then the cross-bearer, young men as chanters, little boys, most strangely attired in white satin knee-breeches and short lace skirts, scattering rose-leaves from open baskets at their sides; the cure came bearing the monstrance and Host, followed by Sisters with little girls in their charge; lastly was a mixed throng of parishioners. Most of the women held rosaries, and a few of them, bent with age, carried upon their heads the very cap that old Mother Hubbard wore, if tradition and English artists are to be trusted. As the last of the long procession passed out of sight between the walls of white linen, the wind brought the words clearly back:
'Genitori, Genitoque Laus et jubilatio.'
Now I entered the little church that was quite empty, and where no sound would have been heard if the two voices in the tower had not continued to ring out over the dovecotes, where the white pigeons rested and wondered, and over the broad fields where the bending grasses and listening flowers stood in the afternoon sunshine, 'Laus et jubilatio,' in the language of the bells.
The church was Romanesque, probably of the twelfth century. The nave was flanked by narrow aisles. Upon the very tall bases of the columns were carved, together with foliage, fantastic heads of demons, or satyrs of such expressive ugliness that they held me fascinated. Some were bearded, others were beardless, some were grinning and showing frightful teeth, others had thick-lipped, pouting mouths hideously debased. A few were really bons diables, who seemed determined to be gay, and to joke under the most trying circumstances; but the greater number had morose faces, puckered by the long agony of bearing up the church. Such variety of expression in ugliness was a triumph of art in the far-off age, when the chisel of an unremembered man with a teeming imagination made these heads take life from the inanimate stone.
The road from Autoire to St. Cere soon led me into the valley of the Bave, a beautiful trout-stream, galloping towards the Dordogne through flowery meadows, on this last day of May, and under leaning trees, whose imaged leaves danced upon the ripples in the green shade. As I had no need to hurry, I loitered to pick ragged-robins upon the banks, flowers dear to me from old associations. Very common in England, they are comparatively rare in France.
New pleasures await the wayfarer every hour, almost every minute, in the day, and however long he may continue to wander over this wonderful world of inexhaustible variety, if he will only stop to look at everything, and so learn to feel the charm of little things.
I met a beggar, and fell into conversation with him. He asked me for nothing, and was surprised when I gave him two sous. He was a ragged old man, with a canvas bag, half filled with crusts, slung upon his side. I had already met many such beggars in this part of France. They travel about from village to village, filling their bags with pieces of bread that are given them, and selling afterwards what they cannot eat as food for pigs. As they rarely receive charity in the form of money, they do not expect it. This kind of mendicant is distinctly rural, and belongs to old times.
The bold front of an early Renaissance castle, with round towers at the angles, capped with pointed roofs, drew me from the highroad. It was the Chateau de Montal, in connection with which I had already heard the story of one Rose de Montal, a young lady of some three centuries ago, who had given her heart to a nobleman of the country, Roger de Castelnau. By-and-by the charms of another lady caused him to neglect the fair Rose de Montal. She remained almost constantly at a window of one of the towers, scanning the country, and longing to catch sight of the faithless Roger. One day he came down the valley of the Bave, and she sang from the height of her tower a plaintive love-song, hoping that he would stop and make some sign; but he passed on, unmoved by the tender appeal of the noble damsel. As he disappeared, she cried, 'Rose, plus d'espoir!' and threw herself from the window.
The metayer, now placed in charge of the castle, showed me over it. It was a sad spectacle. The building, one of the best preserved and most elaborately decorated works of the Renaissance in this part of Guyenne until a few years ago, then fell into the hands of a vulgar speculator, who detached all the carvings that could be removed without difficulty, and sold them in Paris. The noble staircase and all its delicate sculpture remain, but these only add to the regret that one feels for what is no longer there. Had the Commission of Historic Monuments placed the Chateau de Montal upon its list, it would probably have escaped spoliation, although, in the case of private property, the State has no power to prevent destruction, however grievous the national loss.
I entered St. Cere at sundown. This bright little town lies in the midst of fertility. It is on the banks of the Bave, and at the foot of a hill that rises abruptly from the plain, and is capped by two towers of a ruined feudal stronghold, which show against the horizon far into the Quercy, the Correze, and the Cantal. Some of the old streets have quite a mediaeval air, with their half-wood houses with stories projecting upon the floor-joists, and others of a grander origin with turrets resting on encorbelments. I had the luck to find a good old-fashioned inn here, and to pass the evening in very pleasant company.
The next morning I climbed to the top of the neighbouring hill to have a closer view of those towers which had been my landmarks on the previous day, passing through the little village of St. Laurent-les-Tours, which lies immediately under the old fortress after the manner of so many others of feudal origin. The towers are rectangular donjons of the twelfth and fourteenth centuries, one being nearly a hundred and fifty feet high. The castle was raised upon a table of calcareous rock; but only the towers, a portion of the outer wall built of enormous blocks of stone, and a ruined archway marking the spot where the drawbridge once hung, remain to tell the tale of the past.
That the Romans had fortified this height there is the strongest evidence in the fact that the substructure of the rampart that once surrounded the castle is of cubic stones laid together according to the method so much practised by the Romans, and known as opus reticulatum. Moreover, the coins, pottery, and arms found here seem to afford conclusive proof that this remarkable hill was one of the fortified positions of the Romans in Gaul.
The spot has its Christian legend, which is briefly this: In the castle that crowned the height in the time of the Visigoth kings was born St. Esperie, daughter of a Duke of Aquitaine. Being pressed to marry, notwithstanding the vow she had made to consecrate her life to God, she hid herself in a neighbouring forest for three months. She was at length discovered by her enraged brother and lover, who cut off her head. Like St. Denis, St. Esperie picked up her head, to the unspeakable astonishment and dismay of her persecutors. They fled from her, but she followed them as far as a little stream that flows into the Bave at St. Cere. Esperie is a saint much venerated in the Haut-Quercy. The church of St. Cere is dedicated to her, and the name given to the town is supposed to be a corruption of Esperie.
From St. Cere I took the road to Castelnau-de-Bretenoux, returning for some distance by the way I came. Inns being now very scarce in the district, I decided to take my chance of lunch in a small village called St. Jean-Lespinasse. Another saint! The map of France is still covered with the names of saints, in spite of all the efforts of revolutionists and pagan reformers to make the people abandon their 'Christian superstitions.' Those who in the 'ages of faith' built up this association of saints and places could have had no conception of the power that these names would have in binding Christianity to the soil in the faithless or doubting ages to come. The only inn at St. Jean-Lespinasse was kept by a blacksmith, and the room where I had my meal was over the forge. Bread and cheese and eggs were, as I expected, the utmost that such a hostelry could offer in the way of food for a wayfarer's entertainment. Before leaving the village I found the church—a curious old structure of the Transition period, with a large open porch covered with mossy tiles, held up by rough pillars. There were stone benches inside, on which generations of villagers had sat and gossiped in their turn. In the interior were columns engaged in the wall of the nave, with the capitals elaborately and heavily foliated with pendent bunches of flowers and fruit, much more in accordance with English than French taste.
I crossed the Bave, and followed a road bordered with hedgerows of quince that presently skirted sunny slopes covered with lately-planted vines. Thunder was moaning and growling in the distance when I reached the much-embowered village of Castelnau, upon a height immediately under the reddish walls and towers of the immense feudal stronghold, the fame of which went far and wide in the Middle Ages. Its name in the Southern dialect means 'new castle,' but it dates from the eleventh or twelfth century. Extensive additions were made in subsequent ages, notably a wing in the Renaissance style, which was inhabited until the middle of the present century, when all but the walls was destroyed by fire.
The feudal castle was built upon the plan of a triangle, with a tower at each angle, the one at the apex being the donjon. The form of this lofty keep is rectangular, and the machicolations and embattlements which were added in the fifteenth century are in a perfect state of preservation. Upon the platform, which I was able to reach by means of ladders and the half-ruinous spiral staircase, viper's bugloss spread its brilliant blue flowers over the dark stones, and enticed the high-soaring bees. The view of the wide and beautiful Dordogne Valley from these old battlements was not less grand because more than one-half of the sky was of a bluish-black—a mysterious canopy that concealed the genius of the storm, but from the turbulent folds of which there darted every minute a dazzling line of light. The tower on which I stood, although the highest of the three, had never been struck by lightning, but one of the others had been repeatedly struck, and the ruined masonry showed abundant signs of the scorching it had undergone in this way. Lightning is capricious and incomprehensible in its preferences.
This castle was besieged by Henry Plantagenet in 1159, but without success. Subsequently he made another effort, and then reduced it. His son Henry made it his headquarters for some time after he had revolted. In 1369 Thomas de Walkaffera the English seneschal who held Realville on behalf of his sovereign, was besieged there by a Lord of Castelnau, assisted by other barons. The garrison was overcome and massacred. Another Lord of Castelnau, John, Bishop of Cahors, convened a meeting of the States of the Quercy in his fortress, at which a rising against the English was decided upon. It resulted in their temporary expulsion from the Quercy.
Besides the towers and exterior walls, there are some chambers of the old castle in good preservation. The chapel is still roofed, and the altar-stone is in its place. In an elevated chamber at the lower end, the dead were laid while awaiting burial.
Descending to the village, I entered the parish church—a Gothic building of the fourteenth century, containing many interesting details. The oak stalls, each with a quaint human figure carved upon it, are exceedingly curious. Outside the church little girls were playing, in the charge of a Sister who had a beautiful sweet face. She showed me the way to the next village, where I hoped to find shelter from the gathering storm. I have a pleasant picture in the mind of Castelnau—a bowery, ancient, mossy place, with vines climbing about the houses or on trellises in the little steep gardens, and a golden bloom of stonecrop upon the rough walls.
I reached the village of Prudhomat just as the storm burst over it, and took shelter in a small inn, which, like most of those in the country, had its room for the public upstairs. Two women who were there made the sign of the cross each time the lightning flashed—a widespread custom of the French peasantry; but a couple of men who were eating salad and bread paid no heed to the furious cannonade that was kept up by the darkened heavens. It was four o'clock, and they were having their gouter. The peasants of the Quercy do not live on the fat of the land; but they generally have five meals a day, two more than the middle-class French. They begin with soup at a very early hour in the morning; then they have their dinner about ten, which is chiefly soup; at three or four they have a gouter of bread and cheese, salad or fruit; and at six or seven they have their supper, which is soup again.
The old woman who sat near the window worked diligently with her distaff laden with hemp, except when the flashing lightning made her stop to raise her thin hand to her forehead. She was twisting the thread from which the sheets of the country are made. They are coarse, but they last longer than the hands that work the hemp, and descend from mother to daughter.
More than two hours I waited in this auberge while the rain fell in torrents, the lightning blazed, and the thunder crashed. The whole sky was the colour of slate. When at length a line of bright light appeared in the western sky, I could curb my impatience no longer, and, hoisting my pack, I was soon on the road to Carennac.
A little beyond the village I passed a gipsy encampment ranged along the side of the highway on a strip of waste land. There were no tents; but there were four or five miserable little caravans, roofed over with tattered and dirty canvas. They were tents on wheels. Some thin and ascetic-looking old mules and wizen donkeys had been taken out of the shafts, and were now nibbling the short wayside grass, the young burdocks and mulleins, which, but for the rain, would have filled their mouths with dust. Small portable stoves—alas! not the traditional fire with three stakes set in the ground and tied at the top, with the pot swinging therefrom—had been lighted outside the caravans, and gipsy women were making the evening soup. Bright-eyed, shock-headed, uncombed, unwashed, but exceedingly happy gipsy children were tumbling over one another on the wet turf, showing so much of their brown skin between their rags that they would have been more comfortable and quite as decent had they been naked. A hideous old man, merely skin and bones, sitting nose and knees together upon a sack, did not take my curiosity in good part, but glared at me morosely. The younger men of this interesting community were elsewhere—perhaps mending saucepans, or reassuring ducks alarmed by the thunderstorm. A musician of the party must have been kept in by the bad weather, for from one of the caravans came the diabolic screech of a wheezing concertina that had got rid of all its ideals and dreams of distinction.
The bright line in the west moved very slowly upwards, and the rain continued to fall, although less drenchingly than before. The setting sun strove with the cloud-rack and coloured the veil of vapour that its rays could not pierce. The nightingales and thrushes in the shrubs, and the finches amidst the later blossoms of the may, took heart again, and the song rose from so many throats near and far that the whole valley of the Dordogne was filled with warbling. As the birds grew drowsy the frogs came out to spend a happy night on the margins of the pools and the brooks, until their joyful screaming and croaking was a universal chorus. I was by the side of the broad river that flowed calmly through the fairest meadows. The face of the stream, the pools in the road, the grass and the leaves, were brightened with the orange glow of a veiled light as of some sacred fire shining in the dusk through clouds of incense. It grew warmer and warmer until it purpled and died away in grayness and mournful shadow. The beauty of nature at such moments, when the colours brighten and fade like the powers of the mind as the human day is closing, takes a solemnity that is unearthly, and it is good to be alone with the mystery.
It was dark when I reached Carennac. I did not realize how wet I was until I sat down in an auberge and tried to make myself comfortable for the night. It is not easy, however, to be happy under such circumstances. When the fire on the hearth was stirred up and fed with fresh wood to cook my dinner of barbel that had just had time to die after being pulled out of the Dordogne, I placed myself in the chimney-corner to dry before the welcome blaze. How cheering is a fire, even in June and in Southern France, on a rainy night, when the sound of sighing trees comes down the chimney and the tired wayfarer's clothes are sticking to his legs and back! How cheering, too, at such a time is a dinner, however modest, in the light and warmth of the fire. A humble barbel has then a more delicate flavour than a salmon-trout cooked with consummate art for people who never know what it is to be hungry.
The next morning I was in the cloisters belonging to the Benedictine priory of Carennac, of which Fenelon was the titular prior. Hither he came for quietude, and here he wrote his 'Telemaque,' a historical trace of which is found in a little island of the Dordogne, which is called 'L'Ile de Calypso.' It is recorded that the mother of the great Churchman and writer, when she feared that she would be childless, went on a pilgrimage to Roc-Amadour, and that Fenelon was the consequence of that act of devotion.
The cloisters of Carennac, built from plans furnished by that fountain of ecclesiastical art in the Middle Ages, the monastery of Cluny, must, judging from the remnants of tracery in the arcades, and the delicately carved bosses of the vaults, have been once a spot where the spirit of Gothic architecture found delight. Now the spirit of ruin dwells there, leading the bramble and the celandine to conquer, year after year, some fresh territory upon the ancient quadrangle's crumbling wall. Above, where the sunbeam strikes upon the wrinkled stone, the lizard basks and the bee fresh from its hive hums as blithely among the yellow flowers of the celandine as if the blocks raised by men in their reaching towards Heaven were nothing more than the rocks that cast their shadows upon the Dordogne. Upon the ground, man, by using no rein of respect to curb the lower needs of life, has desecrated the spot with pigsties! Some inhabitant of Carennac, into whose hands the cloisters passed in recent times, thought that a place which was good enough for Benedictine monks to walk in might, with a little fresh masonry, be made fit for pigs to feed and sleep in. But an end had come to this idyllic state of things. The cloisters of Carennac had just been placed on the list of historic monuments. The adjoining church had been 'classed' long before.
This church, a small Gothic edifice of the twelfth century, has a far-projecting porch enriched with a specimen of mediaeval carving which is a long delight to the few archaeologists who find their way to the almost forgotten village of Carennac. The composition, which fills the tympan of the scarcely-pointed arch, represents Christ surrounded by the twelve Apostles. The influence of Byzantine art is perceptible in the treatment. Very few such masterpieces of twelfth-century carving have been so well preserved as this. The seated figure of Christ in the act of blessing His Apostles, the right hand upraised, the left resting upon a clasped book, impresses the beholder by its majesty and serenity. Very different are the figures of the Apostles: these are men, and of a very common type too, such as the Benedictines were accustomed to see in their own cloisters, or among their dependents at Carennac. But how animated are the forms, and how expressive the faces! The mouldings which serve as a border to the composition are much more Romanesque or Byzantine than Gothic, and the columns that support it have capitals which are purely Romanesque. In the interior of the church is a fifteenth-century group of seven figures, representing the scene of the Holy Sepulchre; an admirable composition, showing to what a high degree of excellence French sculpture had attained even at the dawn of the Renaissance.
Upon the stony plateau above Roc-Amadour is a cavern well known in the district as the Gouffre de Revaillon. It had for me a peculiar attraction on account of the gloomy grandeur of the scene at the entrance. When I saw it for the first time I understood at once the supernatural horror in which the peasant has learnt to hold such places. It responds to impressions left on the mind of the 'Stygian cave forlorn,' the entrance to Dante's 'City of Sorrow,' and that other cave where Aeneas witnessed in cold terror the prophetic fury of the Sibyl.
This effect of gloom, horror and sublimity is the result of geological conditions and the action of water, which together have produced many similar phenomena in the region of the causses, but in no other case, I believe, with such power in composing the picturesque. Imagine an open plain which in the truly Dark Ages whereof man has had no experience, but of whose convulsions he has learnt to read a little from the book whose leaves are the rocks, cracked along a part of its surface as a drying ball of clay might do, the fissure finishing abruptly and where it is deepest in front of a mass of rock that refused to split. This was apparently the beginning of the Gouffre de Revaillon. Then came another submersion which greatly modified the appearance of things. There was evidently a deluge here after the land had dried and cracked, and it must have lasted a very long time for the waves to have hollowed, smoothed and polished the rocks inside the caverns and elsewhere as we now see them. Those who have observed with a little attention a rugged coast will, without being geologists, recognise the distinctly marine character of the greater number of these orifices in the calcareous district of the causses. The washing and smoothing action of the sea along the sides of the gorges which cut up the surface of the country in such an astonishing manner is not so easy to distinguish. But the reason is obvious. This limestone rock is by its nature disintegrating wherever it is exposed to the air and frost, and the foundations of the bastions which support the causses are being continually sapped by water which carries away the lime in solution and deposits a part of it elsewhere in the form of stalactite and stalagmite in the deep galleries where subterranean rivers often run, and which probably descend to the lowest part of the formation. Thus by the dislodgment of huge masses of rock which have rolled down from their original positions, and the breaking away of the surfaces of others, the most convincing traces of the sea's action here have nearly disappeared. In the gorge of the Alzou, however, near Roc-Amadour, about 100 feet above the channel of the stream, there is a considerable reach of hard rock approaching marble, the polished and undulating surface of which tells the story of the ocean, just as the sides of the caverns in much more elevated positions tell it.
In the rock where the fissure ends at Revaillon is an opening like a vast yawning mouth, the roof of which forms an almost perfect dome. Adown this a stream trickles towards the end of summer, but plunges madly and with a frightful roar in winter and spring. The steep sides of the narrow ravine are densely wooded, and the light is very dim at the bottom when the sun is not overhead. I made my first attempt to descend the dark passage in the early summer, but there was too much water, and I was soon obliged to retreat. One afternoon in October I returned with a companion, and we took with us a rope and plenty of candles. We carried the rope in view of possible difficulties in the shape of rocks inside the cavern, for it should be borne in mind that in gouffres of this character the stream frequently descends by a series of cascades. The weather was very sultry, and the sky towards the west was of a slaty blue. A fierce storm was threatening, but we paid no attention to it—a mistake which others bent on exploring caverns where streams still flow should be warned against. There is probably no force in nature more terrible, or which makes a man's helplessness more miserably felt, than water suddenly rushing towards him when he is underground.
The sun was still shining, however, when we reached the Gouffre de Revaillon and descended into the ravine over roots of trees coiling upon the moss like snakes, some arching upward as if about to spring at the throat of those who disturbed the elfish solitude. At our coming there rose from the great rock such a multitude of jackdaws that for some seconds they darkened the air. With harsh screams the birds soared higher and higher above their fortress, which they had possessed for ages in perfect security. We reached the bed of the stream, where scattered threads of water tinkled as they fell over huge blocks into little pools below, and then went whispering on their way towards the darkness. At the botton of a long slant of greenish slimy stone, patched here and there with moss, I stopped a few minutes, feeling that I could not grasp without an effort the deep gloom and grandeur of my surroundings. The jackdaws had all flown away, and there was no sound now but the tinkle and gurgle of the water. Great snails crawled upon the tufts of rank grass wet with the autumnal dews that the sun had failed to dry, and upon the glistening hart's-tongue ferns, and they looked just the kind of snails that witches would collect to make a hell-broth. Dark ivy hung down from the rocks, and under the vaulted entrance of the cavern was a clump of elders, very sinister-looking, and giving forth when touched an evil narcotic odour. Near these forlorn shrubs was a solitary plant of angelica, now woebegone, its fringed leaves drooping, waiting for the rising water to wash it into the darkness. There were willow-herbs still in bloom, but the crane's-bill struggled with the gloom farther than any other flowering plant, and its bright little purple lamps shone in the very mouth of Night. Gnats there were too, spinning in the semi-darkness, now sinking, now rising, keeping together, a merry band of musicians, each with a small flute, piping perhaps to the little goblins that swung on spiders' webs, and slept upon the fronds of the ferns.
Candles were now lighted, and we left the glimmer of day behind us. A little beyond the great dome the roof became so low that we had to creep along almost on hands and knees, but it presently rose again, and to a great height. The first obstacle—the one that sent me back a few months before—was a steep rock down which the water then fell in such a cascade that there was no getting a foothold upon it. Now the water scarcely covered it, and there was no difficulty in reaching the bottom. Here, however, was a pool through which we had to wade knee-deep. The cavern continued, and the stalagmite became interesting by its fantastic shapes. Here was a mass like an immense sponge, even to the colour, and there, descending from the roof down the side of the rock, was the waved hair of an undine that had been changed into white and glistening stone. The stalactites were less remarkable. The sound of dropping water told us that another cascade was near. This we left behind by climbing along the side of the gallery, clinging to the rock, and in the same way four more obstacles of precisely the same character were overcome. All the distance the slope was rapid, but at intervals there was a sudden fall of from ten to fifteen feet, with a black-looking pool at the foot of the rock, hollowed out by the action of the tumbling torrent. The last of these falls was the worst to cross. To this point the cavern had been already explored, but no farther apparently, the local impression being that it ended just beyond. It was an ugly place. The rock over which the water fell was almost perpendicular, and the pool at the bottom was larger and deeper than the others. Seen by the light of day, any schoolboy might have scoffed at the difficulty of getting beyond it, but when you are descending into the bowels of the earth, where the light of two candles can only dissolve the darkness a few yards around you, every form becomes fantastic and awful, and the effect of water of unknown depth upon the imagination is peculiarly disturbing. But we made up our minds to go on if it were possible. The passage was very narrow, and the sides offered few salient points to which one could cling. We moved along a very narrow ledge in a sitting posture, and then, when we had gone as far as we could in this way, and there was nothing beyond to sit upon, we made a spring. My companion, being the more agile, nearly cleared the pool, but I went in with a great splash, as I expected, and thought myself lucky in being only wetted to the waist. The water was not very cold, the temperature of the cavern being much higher than that of the outer air.
We reckoned that we had by this time travelled underground about half a mile, and as we had been descending rapidly all the way, the distance beneath the surface must have been considerable. My theory with regard to this stream was that it was a tributary of the subterranean Ouysse; but the fact that the cavern ran north-west made me change my opinion, and conclude that this water-course took an independent line towards the Dordogne.
A little beyond the last pool the running water suddenly vanished. We looked around to see if it had taken any side passage; but no: it simply disappeared into the earth, although no hole was perceptible in its stony channel. It passed by infiltration into some lower gallery, where the light of a candle had never shone, and is never likely to shine. But we had not reached the end of the cavern, although the passage became so low that we had now really to go down on all-fours in order to proceed. We had not to keep this posture long, for again the roof rose, although to no great height. We walked on about fifty yards or more, and then came to the end. There was no opening anywhere except by the way we entered. We were like flies that had crawled into a bottle, and a very unpleasant bottle it might have proved to us. We noticed—at first with some surprise—that, although there was not a drop of water now in this cul-de-sac, our feet sank into damp sand that had evidently been carried there by water. Sticks were also lying about, and the walls up to the roof were covered with a muddy slime. It was evident that this hole had been filled with water, and not very long ago; probably the last thunderstorm accounted for the signs of recent moisture. While we were talking about this, a strange, muffled, moaning sound reached our ears. We looked at one another over the tops of two candles. 'Thunder,' said my companion. In a few minutes the same dismal moan, long drawn out, came down the cavern, which acted like a speaking-tube between us and the outer world, and conveyed a timely warning. Was it in time? We were not quite sure of this, for as we issued from the cul-de-sac we heard the water coming down the rocks with a very different voice from that which it had not many minutes before. It was clear that the storm was beginning to tell upon the stream, and if the rain had been falling for half an hour, as I had already seen it fall in the Quercy, we might find the work of recrossing those pools and climbing up the cascades anything but cheerful. Already where we had been able to walk on dry stones the water was now up to our ankles. The first cascade to surmount was the worst. We decided to try it on the side opposite to the one by which we descended, for we observed a jutting and highly-polished piece of stalagmite, which promised to help the manoeuvre. One went first, and the other waited, holding the candle. I was in the rear. When my companion had reached the top of the cascade, I threw him the coil of rope—a useless encumbrance, as it happened—and in so doing put out the candle. Before I was sure that I had a dry match upon me, I failed to seize the humour, although I felt the novelty of the situation. During those seconds of uncertainty, the sound of the water—really fast increasing—seemed to become a deafening roar. However, we both had dry matches, and were able to relight our candles; but it might have been otherwise, wet as we were. Without light we should have been as helpless beneath those rocks as mice in a pitcher. The first cascade conquered, we felt much more comfortable, for the picture of being washed into that cul-de-sac had flashed upon the mind of each.
As the next and the next cascade were passed, our spirits rose still more; and when we saw the gray daylight in the distance, our gaiety was quite genuine, and we no longer 'laughed yellow,' as the French phrase it. The stream was rapidly becoming a frantic torrent, but we were not afraid of it now. On reaching the dome, we saw the water pouring over rocks that were dry when we entered, and the clouds seemed to be emptying their rain in frenzy.
An hour later the stream that was lisping so innocently as it threaded its way amongst the stones, and dropped from rock to rock before the storm, sent up a wild roar from the bottom of the valley, and shrieked like a tormented fiend, as it leaped into the black mouth of the Gouffre de Revaillon. Tons of water had probably collected there at the bottom of the gulf. And I, in my shortsightedness, had hoped that the cavern was two or three miles long! I had great reason to be thankful that it ended where it did, for the excitement of adventure would have carried us on, and we might have gone too deep into the earth to hear the thunder.
On emerging from the darkness, we made all the haste we could to reach the nearest inn. The storm was still at its height; the thunder was an almost continuous roar; and the quick lightning-flashes lit up the streaming country. We were quite drenched on reaching a little wayside auberge. Water was soon boiling upon the wood-fire, and having set rheumatism at defiance with steaming glasses of grog, we left for Roc-Amadour, where, on our arrival, we found our friends about to start with lanterns to look for us in the Gouffre de Revaillon.
* * * * *
Noticing one day a low cavern in the rocks beside the Ouysse, I asked if anyone had ever entered it, and was told that a man had done so; that he had found a long, low gallery, which he followed for two or three hundred yards, and then gave up the attempt to reach the end. It was well known that the hole, being on a level with the water, was much used by otters. The desire to explore this cavern becoming strong, I spoke to Decros about the adventure. He was ready to go with me; and so we started, taking with us enough candles to light a ball-room.
On our way over the hills from Roc-Amadour, we passed two dolmens, one of which was in good preservation. There are several hundred of them in the Quercy; and the peasants, who call them pierros levados (raised stones), also 'tombs of the giants' and cairous, in which last name the Celtic word cairn has been almost preserved, treat them now with indifference, although it is recorded of one of the early bishops of Cahors that he caused a menhir to be broken to pieces because it was an object of idolatrous worship. Those who have been to the trouble of excavating have almost invariably found in each dolmen a cella containing human bones. In some of them flint implements have been discovered; in others iron implements and turquoise ornaments, showing that the tombs, although all alike, belong to different periods. Tumuli are also numerous, but only a few menhirs and traces of cromlechs are to be seen.
Close to the Gouffre de Cabouy, whose outflow forms a tributary of the Ouysse, is a cottage where a man lives whose destiny I have often envied. When he is tired of fishing or shooting, he works in his thriving little vineyard, which he increases every year. The river is as much his own as if it belonged to him; he gets all he wants by giving himself very little trouble, and has no cares. We needed this man's boat for our expedition, and we found it drawn into a little cove beside the ruined mill, long since abandoned. It was a somewhat porous old punt, with small fish swimming about in the bottom; but it was well enough for our purpose. In the warm sunshine of the October afternoon we glided gently down the quiet stream, which is very deep, but so clear that you can see all the water-plants which revel in it, down to the sand and pebbles. Near the banks we passed over masses of watercress, and what might be likened to floating fields of lilies and pond-weed.
It needed no little reflection and expenditure of art to insert the prow of the boat into the mouth of the cavern. What an ugly and uninteresting hole I then thought it! Having run the punt as far as we could into the opening, there still remained about six feet of water to cross before reaching the sandy mud beyond. A plank, however, that we brought with us served as a bridge. The story of the otters was no fable, for here were the footprints of the beasts all over the mud. We lighted candles and looked into the hole. The ground rose and the roof descended, so that to enter it was necessary to lie perfectly flat, and to crawl along by a movement very like that of swimming; then the passage became so small that there was only room for one to go at a time. Neither of us was ambitious to go first, for there was just a chance of an otter seizing the invader by the nose; but neither liked to show the white feather. Each in turn went in a few yards, planted a lighted candle in the mud, and then found some pretext for returning. The hot air of the cavern was almost suffocating, and one felt so helpless flattened against the earth, with the rock pressing so tight upon the back that even to wriggle along was difficult. 'Decros is a native,' thought I, 'and he ought to be used to this kind of work. I will let him understand that he is expected now to do his duty.' In he went again, and planted another candle about a yard in front of the last one. Then he stopped and fired a shot from the revolver that we carried in turn for the otters, and the sound of the detonation seemed to echo in a muffled fashion from the bowels of the earth.
'How many otters have you killed?' I shouted.
'None,' he replied. 'I just fired to let them know that we are here.'
I then asked him if he was going on, and I fancied that he tried to shrug his shoulders, but found the rock in the way. His practical reply, however, was to slowly back out. When he was able to stand up again, he said he believed he had seen the end of the cavern, and would like me to take another look. I now realized that if the secrets of the fantastic realm which my fancy had pictured were to be revealed to me, there must be no more shirking. When I flattened myself out again upon the mud, it was with the determination to go right through the neck of the bottle, for such the passage figuratively was. At one moment I felt tightly wedged, unable to move forward or backward, in a hot steamy atmosphere that was not made any pleasanter by the smoke of the burnt powder; but, the sight of the now rising roof encouraged me to further efforts, and presently I was able to stand upright—in fact, I was in a cavern where a giant of the first magnitude could have walked about with ease, but where he might have been a prisoner for life. I was resolved, however, that Decros should not escape his share of the adventure, so I called to him to come on, and he quickly joined me. To my great disappointment, the cavern soon came to an end. Where, we asked, could the otters be hiding themselves? Examining the place more carefully, we found a passage going under the rock at the farther extremity, but nearly filled with sand which the river had washed up in time of flood. Here, then, was the continuation of the cavern. The passage had been made by water, for a subterranean stream must at one time have found an exit here into the Ouysse, and now water was reversing the process by filling up the ancient conduit. But for the otters that kept it open, we should probably have seen no trace of it; and it was for this that we had wriggled our way into the hideous hole like serpents! I left with the impression that there was much vanity in searching for the wonders of the subterranean world.
Having brought back the boat, we stopped at the cottage by the vineyard and tried the juice of the grapes which three weeks before were basking in the sun. It was now a fragrant wine of a rich purple, with a certain flavour of the soil that made it the more agreeable. The fisherman's wife also placed upon the table a loaf of home-made bread, of an honest brown colour, some of the little Roc-Amadour cheeses made from goat's milk, and a plate of walnuts. The window looked out upon the sunny vines, whose leaves were now flaming gold or ruddy brown; the blue river shone in the hollow below, and through the open door there came the tinkling of bells from the rocky wastes where the small long-tailed sheep were moving slowly homeward, nibbling the stunted herbage as they went.
This sound reminded us that the sun would soon drop behind the hill, and that the Pomoyssin, to which we intended to pay a visit on our way home, was not a spot that gained attractiveness from the shades of night. I had heard the country-people speak of it as a peculiarly horrible and treacherous gouffre, and its name, which means 'unwholesome hole,' corresponds to the local opinion of it. The shepherd children would suffer torture from thirst rather than descend into the gloomy hollow and dip out a drop of the dark water which is said to draw the gazer towards it, and then into its mysterious depths under the rock, by the spell of some wicked power. Some years ago a woman, supposed to have been drawn there by the evil spirit, was found drowned, and since then the spot has been avoided even more than it was before.
It was to this place, then, that we went when the sun was setting. The way led up a deep little valley which was an absolute desert of stones. A dead walnut-tree, struck apparently by lightning, with its old and gnarled branches stretching out on one side like weird arms, was just the object that the imagination would place in a valley blighted by the influence of evil spirits, in proximity to a passage communicating from their world to this one. Presently, as we drew near some high rocks, Decros, pointing to a dark hollow in the shadow of them said, 'There it is.' We went down into the basin to the edge of the water that lay there, black and still, Decros showing evident reluctance and restlessness the while, so strongly was his mind affected by all the stories he had heard about the pool. Moreover, it was rapidly growing dusk. In this half-light the funnel in which we were standing certainly did look a very diabolic and sinister hole. The fancy aiding, everything partook of the supernatural: the dark masses of brambles hanging from the rocks, the wild vines clinging to them with leaves like flakes of deep-glowing crimson fire, and especially the intermittent sound of gurgling water.
I was glad to have seen the Pomoyssin under circumstances so favourable, but it was with relief that I left it and began to climb the side of the gorge from this valley of dreadful shadows towards the pure sky that reddened as the brown dusk deepened below.
IN THE VALLEY OF THE CELE.
It was a burning afternoon of late summer when I walked across the stony hills which separate the valley of the Lot from that of its tributary the Cele, between Capdenac and Figeac. I did not take the road, but climbed the cliffs, trusting myself to chance and the torrid causse. I wished that I had not done so when it was too late to act differently. There was nothing new for me upon the bare hills, where all vegetation was parched up except the juniper bushes and the spurge. At length I found the road that went down with many a flourish into the valley of the Cele, and I reached Figeac in the evening, covered with dust, and as thirsty as a hunted stag. Here I took up my quarters for awhile.
Figeac is not a beautiful town from the Haussmannesque point of view—the one that is destined to prevail in all municipal councils; but it is full of charm to the archaeologist and the lover of the picturesque. There are few places even in France which have undergone so little change during the last five or six hundred years. Elsewhere, thirteenth and fourteenth century houses are becoming rare; here they are numerous. There are streets almost entirely composed of them. These streets are in reality narrow crooked lanes paved with pebbles, slanting towards the gutter in the centre. Some are only three or four yards wide, and the walls half shut out the light of day. You look up and see a mere strip of blue sky, but trailing plants reaching far downward from window-sills, one above the other, light up the gloom with many a patch of vivid green. You venture down some dim passage and come suddenly upon a little court where an old Gothic portal with quaint sculptures, or a Renaissance doorway with armorial bearings carved over the lintel, bears testimony to the grandeur and wealth of those who once lived in the now grimy, dilapidated, poverty-stricken mansion. Pretentious dwellings of bygone days have long since been abandoned to the humble.
Here is a typical house in the Rue Abel, which is scarcely wide enough for two to walk abreast. The oak door is elaborately carved with heads and leaves, flowers and line ornament, all in strong relief. One grimacing puckered head has a movable tongue that once lifted a latch on being touched. Near the ground the oak has been half devoured by the damp. This door would have been sold long ago to antiquaries or speculators if the house since the Revolution had not become the property of several persons all equally suspicious of one another, and with the Cadurcian bump of obstinacy equally developed. They had no respect for the carving, and they were eager to 'touch' the money; but their interests in the house not being the same, they could never come to an understanding over the door; consequently, in spite of very tempting offers, the piece of massive oak continues to hang upon its rusty hinges. So much the better for the student of antiquities, for, without denying that museums are eminently useful, it is certain that they deprive objects of a great deal of their interest and their power of suggesting ideas by detaching them from their surroundings. Moreover, it is not at all sure that these things, when they have been bought up and carried away, will ever be put in a place where anybody can see them who may have the wish to do so. And then, when a thing has been put into a museum, it becomes such labour and painfulness to look for it; and most of us are so lazy by nature. I will make a frank confession. For my own part, I should scarcely look at this old door if it were in the Cluny or any other museum; but here, in ancient Figeac, I see it where it was many lustres ago, and the pleasure of finding it in the midst of the sordidness and squalor that follow upon the decay of grandeur and the evaporation of human hopes makes me feel much that I should not feel otherwise, and calls up ideas as a February sunbeam calls gnats out of the dead earth and sets them spinning.
I venture up the stone staircase, although most of the finely carved balusters are gone, and the arch-stones have so slipped out of place that they seem to cling together by the will of Providence rather than by any physical law. The stairs themselves, although of fine stone that has almost the polish of marble, are cracked as if an earthquake had tormented them, and worn by the tread of innumerable feet into deep hollows. I reach a landing where a long corridor stretches away into semi-darkness. The floor is black with dirt, and so are the doors which once opened into rooms where luxury waited upon some who were born, and upon others (perchance the same) who died. A sound reaches me from the far-end of the corridor that makes me feel like a coward. It is the raving of a madman. How he seems to be contending with all the fiends of hell! Sometimes his voice is so low, and the words crowd one upon another so fast, that the muttering is like the prolonged growl of a wild beast; then the mood changes, and the unseen man seems to be addressing an invisible audience in grand sonorous sentences as though he were a Cicero; and perhaps he may be, but as he speaks in patois his eloquence is lost upon me. What a terrible excitement is in his voice! How it thrills and horrifies! And he is alone, quite alone in this dismal old house with the fiends who harass him. This I learn from a young girl whom I meet at the bottom of the staircase. She tells me that the man is only mad at the time of the new or the full moon (I forget which), and that his raving lasts but two or three days. Then nobody ventures near him; but at other times he is quite rational and harmless. He has left, however, upon me an impression more lasting perhaps than that of the old tottering staircase that threatens to close up every moment like a toy snake that has been stretched out.
Most of the old houses are entered by Gothic doorways, and the oak doors are studded with large nail-heads. The locks and bolts are of mediaeval workmanship. Sometimes you see an iron ring hanging to a string that has been passed through a hole in the door. It is just such a string as Little Red Riding-hood (an old French fable, by-the-bye) pulled to lift the latch at the summons of the wicked wolf. And what a variety of ancient knockers have we here! Many are mere bars of iron hanging to a ring; but others are much more artistic, showing heads coifed in the style of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, serpents biting their own tails, and all manner of fanciful ideas wrought into iron. In wandering about the dim old streets, paved with cobble stones, architectural details of singular interest strike one at every turn. Now it is the encorbelment of a turret at the angle of a fifteenth or sixteenth century mansion that has lost all its importance; now a dark archway with fantastic heads grimacing from the wall; now an arcade of Gothic windows, with graceful columns and delicate carvings—a beautiful fragment in the midst of ruin.
What helps much to render these dingy streets, passages, and courts of Figeac so delightfully picturesque is the vegetation which, growing with southern luxuriance in places seemingly least favourable to it, clings to the ancient masonry, or brightens it by the strong contrast of its immediate neighbourhood in some little garden or balustraded terrace. Wherever there are a few feet of ground some rough poles support a luxuriant vine-trellis, and grapes ripen where one might suppose scarcely a gleam of sunshine could fall. The vine clambers over everything, and sometimes reaches to the top of a house two stories high. The old walls of Figeac are likewise tapestried with pellitory and ivy-linaria, with here and there a fern pushing its deep-green frond farther into the shadow, or an orpine sedum lifting its head of purple flowers into the sunshine that changes it to a flame.
There is much in the life of this place that matches perfectly with the surroundings. Enter by a Gothic doorway, and you will come upon a nail-maker's forge, and see a dog turning the wheel that keeps the bellows continually blowing. The wheel is about a foot broad, and stands some three feet high. The dog jumps into it at a sign from his master, and as the wheel turns the sparks from the forge fall about the animal in showers. Each dog is expected to work five or six hours; then, when his task is done, he is allowed to amuse himself as he pleases, while a comrade takes his turn at the wheel. The nail-makers discovered long ago that dog labour was cheaper than boy labour, and not so troublesome. Nevertheless, these wheels belong to an order of things that has nearly passed away.
The crier or tambourineur, as he is generally called, because he carries a drum, which he beats most lustily to awaken the curiosity of the inhabitants, is making the round of the town with an ox, which is introduced to the public as 'le boeuf ici present.' The crier's business is to announce to all whom it may concern that the animal is to be killed this very evening, and that its flesh will be sold to-morrow at 1 franc 25 centimes the kilo. It will all go at a uniform price, for this is the local custom. Those who want the aloyau, or sirloin, only have to be quick. The ox, notwithstanding that he has a rope tied round his nose and horns, and is led by the butcher, evidently thinks it a great distinction to be tambourine; his expression indicating that this is the proudest day of his life. Every time the drum begins to rattle he flourishes his tail, and when each little ceremony is over he moves on to a fresh place with a jaunty air, as if he were aware that all this drumming and fuss were especially intended for his entertainment. No condemned wretch ever made his last appearance in public with a better grace.
Another day I see this crier going round the town accompanied by a boy every available part of whose person is decked with ribbons, and all kinds of things ordinarily sold by drapers and haberdashers. Over each shoulder is slung a pair of women's boots. The boy is a walking advertisement of an exceptional sale, which a tradesman announces with the help of the crier and his drum.
A band of women and girls come up from the riverside, walking in Indian file, and each with a glittering copper water-pot on her head. What beautiful water-pots these are! They have the antique curve that has not changed in the course of ages. They swell out at the bottom and the top, and fall gracefully in towards the middle. As the women quit the sunshine and enter the deep shadow of the street the shine of their water-pots is darkened suddenly, like the sparks of burnt paper which follow one upon another and go out.
The sound of solemn music draws me into a church. A requiem Mass is being chanted. In the middle of the nave, nearer the main door than the altar, is a deal coffin with gable-shaped lid, barely covered by a pall. A choir-boy comes out of the sacristy, carrying a pan of live embers, which he places at the head of the coffin. Then he sprinkles incense upon the fire, and immediately the smoke rises like a snow-white cloud towards the vaulting; but, meeting the sunbeams on its way, it moves up their sloping golden path, and seems to pass through the clerestory window into the boundless blue.
Now the procession moves towards the cemetery. It is a boy's funeral, and four youths of about the same age as the one who lies in darkness hold the four corners of each pall, two of which are carried in front of the coffin. After the hearse come members of the confraternity of Blue Penitents, one of whom carries a great wooden cross upon his shoulder. Others carry staves with small crosses at the top, or emblems of the trades that they follow. The dead boy's father is a Penitent, and this is why the confraternity has come out to-day. They now wear their cagoules raised; but on Good Friday, when they go in procession to a high spot called the Calvary, the leader walking barefoot and carrying the cross on his shoulder in imitation of Christ, they wear these dreadful-looking flaps over their faces. Their appearance then is terrible enough; but what must that of the Red Penitents, who accompanied condemned wretches to execution, have been? In a few years there will be no Blue Penitents at Figeac. As the old members of the confraternity die, there are no postulants to fill their places. Already they feel, when they put on their 'sacks', that they are masquerading, and that the eye of ridicule is upon them. This state of mind is fatal to the conservation of all old customs. The political spirit of the times is, moreover, opposed to these religious processions in France. That of the fete-Dieu at Figeac would have been suppressed some years ago by the Municipal Council had it not been for the outcry of the tradespeople. All the new dresses, new hats, and new boots that are bought for this occasion cause money to be spent that might otherwise be saved, and those who are interested in the sale of such things wish the procession through the streets to be kept up, although in heart they may be among the scoffers at religion.
The religious confraternities in Aquitaine date from the appearance of the routiers at the close of the twelfth century. These routiers were then chiefly Brabancons, Aragonese, and Germans. According to an ecclesiastical author and local historian, the Abbe Debon, the lawless bands spread such terror through the country that they stopped the pilgrims from going to Figeac, Conques, and other places that had obtained a reputation for holiness. A canon of Le Puy in Auvergne, much distressed by the desertion of the sanctuary of Notre Dame de Puy, which rivals that of Roc-Amadour in antiquity, formed the design of instituting a confraternity to wage war against the routiers and destroy them. A 'pious fraud' was adopted. A young man, having been dressed so as to impersonate Notre Dame du Puy, appeared to a carpenter who was in the habit of praying every night in the cathedral, and gave him the mission of revealing that it was the will of the Holy Virgin that a confraternity should be formed to put down the brigands and establish peace in the country. Hundreds of men enrolled themselves at once. The confreres, from the fact that they wore hoods of white linen, obtained the name of Chaperons Blancs. Upon their breasts hung a piece of lead with this inscription: 'Agnus Dei qui tollis peccata mundi dona nobis pacem.' The confraternity spread into Aquitaine, and the routiers were defeated in pitched battles with great slaughter; but the chaperons in course of time became lawless fanatics, and were almost as great a nuisance to society as those whom they had undertaken to exterminate. They were nevertheless the ancestors in a sense of the confraternities of penitents who, at a later period, became so general in Europe.
The monthly fair at Figeac offers some curious pictures of rural life. The peasants crowd in from the valleys and the surrounding causses. Racial differences, or those produced by the influences of soil and food—especially water—for a long series of generations, are very strongly marked. There is the florid, robust, blue-eyed, sanguine type, and there is the leaden-coloured, black-haired, lantern-jawed, sloping-shouldered, and hollow-chested type. Then there are the intermediates. Considered generally, these peasants of the Haut-Quercy are not fine specimens of the human animal. They are dwarfed, and very often deformed. Their almost exclusively vegetable diet, their excessive toil, and the habit of drinking half-putrid rain-water from cisterns which they very rarely clean, may possibly explain this physical degeneration of the Cadurci. Their character is honest in the main, but distrustful and superficially insincere by nature or the force of circumstance. Their worst qualities are shown at a fair, where they cheat as much as they can, and place no limit to lying. Their canon of morality there is that everyone must look after himself. I have been assured by a priest that they never think of confessing the lies that they tell in bartering, because they maintain that every man who buys ought to understand his business. I much wondered why, at a Figeac fair, when there was a question of buying a bullock, the animal's tail was pulled as though all his virtue were concentrated in this appendage. I learnt that the reason of the tugging was this: Cattle are liable to a disease that causes the tail to drop off, but the people here have discovered a very artful trick of fastening it on again, and it needs a vigorous pull to expose the fraud. Among other tricks of the country is that of drenching an ill-tempered and unmanageable horse with two litres of wine before taking him to the fair. He then becomes as quiet as a lamb. I heard the story of a cure, who was thus imposed upon by one of his own parishioners. He wanted a very quiet horse, and he found one at the fair; but the next day, when he went near the animal, it appeared to be possessed of the devil. All this is bad; but there is satisfaction to the student of old manners in knowing that everything takes place as it did centuries ago. The cattle-dealers and peasants here actually transact their business in pistoles and ecus. A pistole now represents 10 francs, and an ecu 3 francs.
The summer is glorious here, and as the climate is influenced by that of Auvergne, it is less enervating by the Cele than in the neighbouring valley of the Lot. There, some twenty miles farther south, the grapes ripen two or three weeks sooner than they do upon these hillsides. But the vent d'autan—the wind from the south-east—is now blowing, and, although there is too much air, one gasps for breath. The brilliant blue fades out of the sky, and the sun just glimmers through layers of dun-coloured vapour. It is a sky that makes one ill-tempered and restless by its sameness and indecision. But the wind is a worse trial. It blows hot, as if it issued from the infernal cavern. It sets the nerves altogether wrong, and disposes one to commit evil deeds from mere wantonness and the feeling that some violent reaction from this influence is what nature insists upon. It is a wind that does not blow a steady honest gale, but goes to work in a treacherously intermittent fashion—now lulled to a complete calm, now springing at you like a tiger from the jungle. Then your eyes are filled with dust, unless you close them quickly, or turn your back to the enemy in the nick of time. The night comes, and brings other trouble. You try to sleep with closed windows, so that you may hear less of the racket that the wind makes outside, but it is impossible: you stifle. You get up and open a window—perhaps two windows. The wind rushes in, but it is like the hot breath of a panting dog. The noise of swinging persiennes that have got loose, and are banged now against the wall, now against the window-frame, mingles with a woful confusion of sounds within, as though a most unruly troop of ghosts were dancing the farandole all through the house. If any door has been left open, it worries you more by its banging at intervals of a minute than if it went on without stopping to consider. Therefore you are compelled to rise again, and go and look for it—anything but a cheerful expedition if you cannot find the matches. When this south wind falls, the rain generally comes, bringing great refreshment to the parched earth, and all the animals that live upon it.
As I have referred to the house in which I live, I may as well say something more with regard to it and the things which it contains. It is not one of the ancient houses of Figeac, but it is old-fashioned and provincial. The rooms are rather large, the floors are venerably black, and the boarded ceilings supported by rafters have never had their structural secrets or the grain of the timber concealed by a layer of plaster. What you see over-head is simply the floor of the room or the loft above. And yet this is not considered a poor-kind of house; it is as good as most good people hereabouts live in. The furniture is simple, but solid; it was made to last, and most of it has long outlasted the first owners. In every room, the kitchen excepted, there is a bed, according to the very general custom of the country. The character of the people is distinctly utilitarian, notwithstanding the blood of the troubadours. There is even a bed in the salle a manger. A piece of furniture, however, from which my eye takes more pleasure is one of those old clocks which reach from the ceiling to the floor, and conceal all the mystery and solemnity of pendulum and weights from the vulgar gaze. It has a very loud and self-asserting tick, and a still more arrogant strike, for such an old clock; but, then, everybody here has a voice that is much stronger than is needed, and it is the habit to scream in ordinary conversation. A clock, therefore, could not make itself heard by such people as these Quercynois, unless it had a voice matching in some sort with their own. Another piece of furniture that pleases me, because it is of shining copper, which always throws a homely warmth into a room, is a large basin fixed upon a stand against the wall, with a little cistern above it, also of copper. It is intended for washing the hands by means of a fillet of water that is set running by turning the tap. In this dry part of the world water has to be used sparingly, and, indeed, there is very little wasted upon the body. Everybody who has travelled in Guyenne must be familiar with the article of household furniture just described. Every young wife piously provides herself with one, together with a warming-pan; for the old domestic ideas are religiously handed down here from mother to daughter. But I must shorten this 'journey round my room,' so little in the manner of Le Maistre.
Most of the furniture was once the property of a priest, and would be still if he were alive. The good man is gone where even the voices of the Figeacois cannot reach him; but he has left abundant traces of his piety behind him. The walls of these rooms are almost covered by them. I cannot help being edified, for I am unable to look upon anything that approaches the profane.
When I grow thoughtful over all these works of art and objets de piete—engravings, lithographs, statuettes, crucifixes, crosses worked in wool, stables of Bethlehem, little holy-water stoops, and the faded photographs belonging to the early period of the art (portraits, no doubt, of brothers, sisters, nephews, and nieces, all revealing that air of rusticity in Sunday clothes which is not to be mistaken)—I have before me the whole story of a simple life, surrounding itself year after year with fresh emblems and tokens of the hope that reaches beyond the grave, and the affections of nature that become woven on this side of it, and which mingle joy and sorrow even in the cup of a village priest.
It is in these quiet, provincial places, where existence goes on in the old-fashioned, humdrum way, that people take care of their household property, and respect the sentiment that years lay up in it: they hand it down to the next generation as they received it. Little objects of common ornament, of religious or intellectual pleasure, thus preserved, throw in course of time a vivid light on human changes.
And it is this vivid light that I am now feeling in these dim rooms. I am aware that nearly everything here is the record of an epoch to which I do not belong—that the world's mind has undergone a great change even in the provinces since the influence that comes forth from these silent traces of past thought were in harmony with it. What interests me more than anything else here is an allegorical or mystical map, designed, drawn, and coloured with all the patience and much of the artistic skill of an illuminating monk of the thirteenth century. I doubt if in any presbytery far out in the marshes or on the mountains a priest could now be found with the motive to undertake such a task. It belongs to the same order of ideas as the 'Pilgrim's Progress.' In this map one sees the 'States of Charity,' the 'Province of Fervour,' the 'Empire of Self-Contempt,' and other countries belonging to a vast continent, of which the centre is the 'Kingdom of the Love of God,' connected to a smaller continent—that of the world—by a narrow neck of land called the 'Isthmus of Charity.' In the continent of the world are shown the 'Mountain of Ingratitude,' the 'Hills of Frivolity,' the territory of 'Ennui,' of 'Vanity,' of 'Melancholy,' and of all the evil moods and vices to which men are liable. Separated from the mainland, and washed by the 'Torrent of Bitterness,' are the 'Rocks of Remorse.' Among the allegorical emblems in various parts of the chart is a very remarkable tree with blue trunk and rose-coloured leaves called the 'Tree of Illusions.' Far above it lies the 'Peninsula of Perfection,' and near to this, under a mediaeval drum-tower, is the gateway of the 'City of Happiness.'
There is a little garden at the back of the house, where flowers and vegetables are mixed up in the way I like. The jessamine has become a thicket. Vines ramble over the trellis and the old wall, and from the window I see many other vines showing their lustrous leaves against tiled roofs of every shade, from bright-red to black. In the next garden is my friend the aumonier, an octogenarian priest, who is still nearly as sprightly of body as he is of mind. He lives alone, surrounded by books, in the collection of which he has shown the broad judgment, and impartiality of the genuine lover of literature. There is a delicious disorder in his den, because there is no one to interfere with him. He is now much excited against the birds because they will not leave his figs alone, and someone has just lent him a blunderbuss wherewith to slay them. Perhaps he will show them the deadly weapon, and hope that they will take the hint; but there is too much kindness underneath his wrath for him to be capable of murdering even a thievish sparrow. He likes to make others believe, however, that he is desperately in earnest. His keen sense of the comic and the grotesque in human nature makes him one of the raciest of story-tellers; but although he does not put his tongue in traces, he is none the less a worthy priest. There are many such as he in France—men who are really devout, but never sanctimonious, whose candour is a cause of constant astonishment, who are good-natured to excess, and who are more open-hearted than many children. Their friendship goes out readily to meet the stranger, and, speaking from my own experience, I can say that it wears well. In the street, on the other side of the house, six women have perched themselves in a row. They have come out to talk and enjoy the coolness of the evening, and, in order that their tender consciences may not prick them for being idle, they are paring potatoes, and getting ready other vegetables for the morrow. They all scream together in Languedocian, which, by-the-bye, is anything but melodious here when spoken by the common people. It becomes much less twangy and harsh a little farther South. How these six charmers on chairs can all listen and talk at the same time is not easy to understand. The truth is, very little listening is done in this part of the world. The saying On se grise en parlant is quite applicable here. People often get drunk on nothing stronger than the flow of their own words.
All the women being now on their way to the land of dreams, and consequently quiet for a few hours, and all the sounds of the earth being hushed save the song of the crickets among the vine-leaves, and in the fruit-trees of the moonlit garden, I will try to see Figeac up the vista of the ages, and if I succeed, perhaps the reader may be helped at the same time to gather interest in this queer old place, whose name, having been made familiar to the English who followed Henry II to France in the twelfth century, is perhaps a reason why their descendants will not 'skip' at first sight these few pages of local history.
The early history of Figeac, or what has long passed as such, is based upon an ingenious stratification of fraud, arising out of a very old quarrel between the monks of Figeac and the monks of Conques, and the determination of the former to prove at all costs that their monastery was the more ancient of the two. This would be a matter of indifference to me had I not been myself entrapped by the snares laid by certain abbots of Figeac for their contemporaries and posterity, and been obliged to throw away much that I had written, and which was far more interesting than the truth. If I had only suspected the fraud, I might have been tempted to keep suspicion down in order to spare the picture of the Carlovingian age which I had elaborated; but it is known at the Ecole des Chartres, and the Abbe B. Massabie of Figeac has, moreover, written a book that removes all doubt as to the spuriousness of the charters upon which the abbots of Figeac, when their jealousy of Conques reached its climax in the eleventh century, based their pretensions to priority. The most important of these charters, and the one that has sent various local historians on a voyage into the airy realms of fiction, is attributed to Pepin le Bref, and bears the date 755. Another is a Bull attributed to Pope Stephanus II., also dated 755, in which is described the ceremony of consecrating the church of St. Sauveur, attached to the abbey, which in the first-mentioned document Pepin is said to have founded. Here it is related that when the Pontiff approached the church strains of mysterious music were heard issuing from the edifice, and such a cloud stood before it that the procession waited for hours before entering. Then, when the Pope walked up to the altar-stone, he found that it had been miraculously consecrated, crosses being marked upon it in oil still wet. Now, the charter attributed to Pepin contains many passages copied verbatim from one preserved at Rodez, and signed by Pippinus, or Pepin I., King of Aquitaine. Its date is 838, and it enriches the monastery of Conques, already existing, with certain lands at Fiacus (Figeac), which is thenceforward to be called New Conques; the motive of this gift being to extend to the monks those material advantages which a rich valley is able to afford, but which are not to be found in a stony gorge surrounded by barren hills. There would have been less scandal to Christianity if Pepin had put a curb on his pious generosity, and had left the monks of Conques to contend with the desert. The charter, moreover, sanctions the building of a monastery at Figeac, which is to remain under the rule and governance of the abbots of Conques. In the eleventh century, the discord between the two monasteries had reached such a pass that popes and councils were appealed to to settle the question of priority. In 1096 the Council of Nimes laid down a modus vivendi without pronouncing upon the principle. It was decreed that the abbots of Figeac should thenceforth be independent of the abbots of Conques.
The monks of Conques appear to have followed originally the rule of St. Martin, and to have adopted that of St. Benedict soon after its introduction into France. The abbey of Figeac was therefore always Benedictine. About the year 900 the monks began to cultivate learning, their labour having previously been devoted almost exclusively to the soil. A certain Abbot Adhelard set them to copy manuscripts, and in course of time Figeac possessed a valuable library, of which the religious wars of the sixteenth century and the Revolution have left very few traces.
The first half of the eleventh century was full of turmoil, trouble, and torment. The 'blood-rain' that fell all over Aquitaine, and which made people watch in terror for what might come next, was followed by a three years' famine, which drove men in their hunger to prey upon one another. The inns were man-traps; solitary travellers who ventured inside of them were killed and devoured. Those were not good wayfaring days. A man actually offered human flesh for sale in the market of Tournus; but he was burnt alive. During this frightful period, the Abbot of Figeac distinguished himself by his charity, and, in order to find work for the unemployed, built a wall round the burg; but the monastery was much impoverished in consequence.
Towards the close of the eleventh century four slender obelisks—called 'needles' in the country—were set up on the hills around Figeac apparently to mark the boundaries of the sauvete; for the abbey enjoyed the right of sanctuary. Two of these needles still exist. According to an absurd story, which has been repeated by various writers, misled by the forgeries already mentioned, the monks, when they came to this part of the valley of the Cele, found it an uninhabited wilderness without a name, and somebody exclaimed, 'Fige acus!' ('Set up needles!'), when the question of marking the boundary was being discussed. This ingenious explanation of the word Figeac will not bear examination.
Every traveller in Aquitaine must have been struck by the remarkable number of places there whose names end in ac. It is commonly supposed that the termination is derived from aqua, and refers to the river or stream near which the town or village was built.
Ac, however, does not at all correspond to the well-known corruptions of aquae still found in the names of places in France where the Romans constructed baths. We are on much surer ground in assuming it to be of Celtic origin, and to have belonged in a special manner to the dialect spoken by the Cadurci, Ruteni and other Southern tribes. It nevertheless occurs at Carnac—that spot of Brittany where is to be seen the most remarkable of all monuments, commonly attributed to the Celts. The word probably meant town. It is unreasonable to suppose that the monks found the valley of the Cele a desert, considering how densely populated was the whole of this part of Gaul at the time of Caesar's invasion. So inhabited was it that the surplus population spread all over the known world, just as the English do to-day. The popular notion with regard to the needles is that they were intended to carry lanterns to guide the pilgrims by night either to Figeac or to Roc-Amadour. Such lanterns were set up in Aquitaine, and some examples may still be seen; but they are very different in character from these obelisks, which in all probability were used to mark the boundary of the salvamentum. It is true that in the Middle Ages the right of asylum was, as a rule, confined to the sanctuary itself or its immediate precincts; but there were exceptions, especially in the South of France, where this sacred zone, which in the Romance language was termed the sauvetat, often extended a considerable distance beyond the walls of a monastic town. Within these bounds persons fleeing from pursuers had the right of asylum; but, on the other hand, there are documents to show that those who committed crimes inside the limit were held guilty of sacrilege.