Early in the Middle Ages the town of Figeac enjoyed the privileges of a royal borough under the protection of the kings of France, who in course of time came to be represented there by their viguier (vicar). The civic administration was in the hands of consuls as early as the year 1001. They rendered justice and even passed sentence of death. The burghers were exempt from all taxation and servitude. The municipality had the right of coining money for the king, and the ruined mint can still be seen. Such was the state of things down to the time when the English appeared in the country. Henry II., having taken Cahors in 1154, left his chancellor, Becket, there as governor. The Figeacois, who at first looked upon Becket as an enemy, after he was murdered at Canterbury, and when the fame of his saintliness began to spread through France, dedicated a church to him. This edifice has disappeared; but the part of the town where it was situated, or where, to speak more correctly, it was afterwards rebuilt, is still called the Quartier St. Thomas. So little were the English loved, however, as a nation by the Quercynois, that, after St. Louis had been canonized, they refused to observe his festival, because they found it impossible to forgive him for having, by the treaty of Abbeville, passed them over to England without their consent.
Figeac was less troubled than some other towns in the Quercy by the English, because in different treaties the kings of France managed to keep a grip upon it as a royal borough.
The gates of the town were, however, thrown open to the English without a struggle about the middle of the fourteenth century, and to punish the consuls, when they again became French, King John took away their right to coin money; but the privilege was restored in consideration of the ardour they had shown in freeing themselves from the British yoke.
The victory of the Black Prince at Poitiers, followed by the treaty of Bretigny, made the King of England absolute master of the Quercy. The Prince of Wales came in person to take possession of Cahors in 1364, and despatched his seneschal, Thomas de Walkaffara, to Figeac to receive from the inhabitants the oath of fealty. They swore obedience, but with much soreness of soul. They afterwards got released from their oath by the Pope, and joined a fresh league formed against the English. After enjoying the sweets of French nationality again for a brief period, they were made English once more by the treaty of Troyes. But the British domination in Guyenne was now approaching its close. The maid of Domremy was about to change her distaff for an oriflamme. The year 1453 saw the English power completely broken in Aquitaine; a collapse which an old rhymer records with more relish than inspiration:
'Par Charles Septieme a grande peine Furent chasses en durs detroits Les Anglais de toute Aquitaine, Mil quatre cent cinquante trois.'
Figeac escaped the horrors which were spread through the South of France by the religious wars of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries; but it was not similarly spared by those of the sixteenth century. The Huguenots laid siege to the town in 1576, and entered it by the treasonable help of a woman—the wife of one of the consuls. There was the usual massacre that followed victory, whether on the side of Protestants or Catholics, and the people became Calvinists for the same reason that they had centuries before become English. In less than fifty years afterwards they were all Catholics again. During this unsettled period, however, there was great domestic dissension in the town, owing to the circumstance that many women belonging to the old Catholic stock had married Protestants who had come into the place. As they could not agree with their husbands, and as many of these refused to be converted for their sake (they may have been thankful for an opportunity of getting rid of them), a refuge called 'L'hospice des mal-mariees' was built for the unhappy wives. When the need for this very singular institution no longer existed it was pulled down.
The Church of St. Sauveur, as we see it to-day, is disappointing. It has been so much rebuilt after different convulsions, and pulled about when there has been less excuse, that many a church in an obscure village gives more pleasure as a whole to the eye that seeks unity of design and inspiration in a work of art. Nevertheless, there are details here that no archaeologist will despise. In the nave are the piers and Romanesque capitals of an early, but not the earliest, church on the spot. They are certainly not later than the twelfth century. Baptismal fonts, now used as holy-water stoups, are probably of anterior workmanship. Cut out of solid blocks of stone, their carving shows all the interlacing lines and exquisite finish of detail, purely ornamental, that marks the pre-Gothic period in the South of France, when the artistic spirit of Christianity was still confined to the close imitation of Roman and Byzantine art.
The Church of Notre Dame du Puy, built upon a height, as the word puy implies, is likewise interesting only in respect of details, such as the sculptured archivolts of the portal and the fourteenth-century rose-window. It, however, contains a very remarkable example of sixteenth-century wood-carving in its massive and elaborate reredos, a portion of which, having been destroyed by fire, has been repaired with plaster, but so skilfully that it is very difficult to perceive where the artistic fraud begins and where it ends.
The extraordinary interest of Figeac to the archaeologist lies, however, in its civic and domestic architecture. This has been preserved simply because the inhabitants have for centuries played no part in the political history of the country, and their pursuits or interests having remained constantly agricultural, they have been equally cut off from the commercial movement. But every year will diminish the charm of this dirty old town to the antiquary. It will be observed that all the old streets are not accidentally crooked, but that they have been carefully laid out on curved or zigzag lines, which turn now in one direction and now in another. The motive was a defensive one in view of street-fighting, which was often so terrible and so prolonged in the Middle Ages. Each curve of a street formed an obstacle to the onward rush of an enemy, and only allowed those burghers who were actually engaged to be exposed to arrows and bolts. The townsmen could dispute the ground inch by inch and for days, as they did at Cahors when they were surprised by Henry of Navarre, although firearms had then come into use.
Wine-growing, until some eight or ten years ago, was the chief source of revenue to the people of Figeac, as well as to those in the neighbouring valley of the Lot. Middle-aged people here can recollect the days when wine was so cheap that the inn-keepers did not take the trouble to measure it out to their customers, but charged them a uniform price of two sous for stopping and drinking as much as they pleased. But all this has been changed by the phylloxera. From being exceptionally prosperous, the people of the district have become poor. Very few have now any money to lay out in replanting their vineyards. Land has so fallen in value that it can be bought at a price that seems scarcely credible. With 100 one might become the proprietor of a large vineyard. Higher up the hills, where the chestnut and juniper thrive, half the money would buy quite a considerable estate. Here and elsewhere in France thousands of acres lie uncultivated and unproductive, except as regards that which nature unaided renders to man. Not all, but a very large portion, of this waste-land would well repay cultivation if the capital needed for clearing and working it were obtainable. That the lands suitable for wine-growing could be rendered remunerative is absolutely certain if those who undertook the task had the money necessary for the first outlay of planting and could afford to wait for the return.
The valley of the Cele between Figeac and the junction of the little river with the Lot contains some of the most picturesque scenery to be found in the Quercy. About ten miles below Figeac it becomes a gorge, which until past the middle of the present century was almost cut off from communication with neighbouring towns. All the carrying was done on the backs of mules and donkeys; but since the road was made along the right bank of the Cele, these animals have been used less and less. It is no uncommon thing, however, to see now a heavily-laden pack-mule coming up the valley to the Figeac fair. It was in their rock-fortresses by the Cele that the English companies in Guyenne are said to have made their final resistance. The long and sustained efforts which were needed to dislodge them from their almost inaccessible fastnesses will be understood by anyone who may go wayfaring like myself along the banks of this tributary of the Lot.
For the first two hours the walk was unexciting, for the valley was too wide and too cultivated to give much pleasure to the eye that looks for character in nature. At the village of Corn there was a decided change. Here lofty honeycombed rocks rose behind the houses that were built not very far above the stream, whose swiftness is supposed to have been the origin of its name. Not one of the several caverns extends far into the cliff. Their chief interest lies in the traditions with which they are associated. In one of them the inhabitants of the little burg are said to have assembled in the Middle Ages to elect their consuls freely, and to escape possible annoyance from their lord, whose castle was on the opposite hill. Another, still called the Citadel, was that in which they took refuge from the enemy, especially from the roving bands of armed men who made common cause with England. In 1380 Bertrand de Bassoran, captain of an English company, captured Corn, and using this place as his point d'appui, he placed garrisons in the neighbouring burgs of Brengues, Sauliac, and Cabrerets. He also compelled the consuls of Cajarc to treat with him.
After a hasty meal in a little inn where I had to be satisfied mainly with good intentions, I called upon the schoolmaster. The poor man was spending most of his dinner-hour on the threshold of his small school-house amidst the rocks because some unruly or idle urchins were 'kept in.' How much pleasanter, I thought, it would have been for him to have produced in their case a wholesome cutaneous irritation, and set himself, as well as the young reprobates, free! But the French law does not tolerate the corporal punishment of children nowadays, although the exasperated pedagogue cannot always resist the temptation of applying his ruler upon a bunch of grimy little knuckles. This schoolmaster, although he was past the age of fifty and had grown corpulent, was still tied fast to the village schoolroom that was much too small to hold thirty children comfortably. By the aid of reading, writing, and arithmetic, he had got into a little creek where he was safe from the stormy seas of life, and he had never allowed his ambition to draw him out into the ocean. Nevertheless, he nursed and rocked his little vanity like the rest of mortals. He had written what he termed a 'Monograph of Corn.' He brought out from his desk a copybook wherein he had set it all down with the utmost attention to upstrokes and downstrokes and punctuation. It was a pleasure to him to find somebody to whom he could read what he had written, and he had in me an attentive listener.
Wandering on by the winding Cele, the charm of the little river made me sit down upon a bank to look at the pictures that were painted on the water by the sunshine, the clouds, and the poplars. Then, continuing my journey, I saw on the opposite side of the stream a cluster of houses with an ancient church in their midst, and almost detached from this church, and yet a part of it, a tower like a campanile capped by a wooden belfry with pointed roof and far-reaching eaves. A bridge led across the water. I found the village to be Sainte Eulalie d'Espagnac. Here there existed from the early Middle Ages a celebrated convent for women of the order of St. Augustine. The founder, Aymeric d'Hebrard, was the Bishop of a see in Spain, and he brought thence Moorish slaves to cultivate the land with which he had endowed his community of a hundred nuns. Down to the Revolution most of the daughters of the nobility in the Quercy were educated here. Little is now left of the conventual building; but the church contains architectural details of much interest, and the tombs of those irreconcilable enemies of the English, Bertrand de Cardaillac, Bishop of Cahors, and the Marquis de Cardaillac—the most famous warrior of this bellicose and illustrious family.
Having reached the village of Brengues, I went immediately in search of the English rock-fortress of which I had already heard. A path led me up the steep hillside to the foot of a long line of high rocks of yellowish limestone, so escarped and so forbidding to vegetable life that I did not see even a wild fig-tree hanging from a crevice. A path ran along at the base of this prodigious wall, from the top of which stretched the arid causse. I had only gone a little way when I saw before me a fortified Gothic gateway jutting out from the rock to which it was attached, and extending across the path to where the hill became so steep as to sufficiently protect from assault on that side those who had a motive for defending the ledge under the high cliff. I examined this old piece of masonry with much curiosity.
The pointed form of the arch disposes of the hypothesis which has been put forward without much reflection, that this legacy of the old wars in Guyenne is part of the defences raised in the country by the unfortunate Waifre, Duke of Aquitaine, when he was being chased from rock to rock by his relentless enemy. Here we have work that is evidently not anterior to the English occupation, and which in all probability belongs to the fourteenth or the early part of the fifteenth century. Now, as Brengues was undoubtedly one of those places where the English companies firmly established themselves, and to which they clung with great tenacity, there is very small risk of error is coming to the conclusion that it was they who built this fortified gateway. The masonry, composed of carefully-shaped stones, and laid together with an excellent mortar that has become as durable as the rock itself, has been wonderfully preserved. Had it been placed in the valley it would have been pulled down long ago, and the materials would have been used for building houses or pigsties. The upper part of the wall is dilapidated, so that it is impossible to say whether it was originally embattled or not. There is no staircase, but the defenders had doubtless a suspended plank or beam on which they stood when they wished to shoot arrows or bolts over the top of the wall. On the side nearest the rock is a splayed opening ending outwardly in a crosslet large enough for three or four men to use at the same time.
This gateway was only an outwork to defend the ledge of rock. About two hundred yards farther is a cavern some twenty or thirty feet above the path, and only accessible by means of a ladder. It has been walled up, openings being left here and there for loopholes. Near the top is a row of three windows without arches, and at the base an opening that served for a door, and which could easily be closed up. Although the stones were shaped for building, they were laid together without mortar; but the wall is so thick, and so protected by its position, that this rough fortification has remained almost unchanged from the date of its construction. It is a much less finished piece of work than the gateway, but there are other rock-fortresses in the district, attributed by general consent to the English, so similar to it in character that there is no reason for doubting that the companies built this one also. It is probable, however, that the gateway already mentioned, and the one that corresponded to it on the other side of the cavern, but of which few vestiges can now be seen, were constructed subsequently, when the science of fortification was better understood by the routiers. Such a fortress could never have been used in a military sense by a large number of men, but to a band of brigands and cut-throats it was a stronghold of the first order. As they doubtless laid up in their cavern a large store of the provisions which they obtained by their continual forays in the surrounding region, they were capable of withstanding a long siege even against an enemy many times as numerous as themselves, for the reason that only a few men could attack them at the same time, and the defenders had an enormous advantage in the struggle. It is a very general belief in the district that there was formerly a passage by which this cavern communicated with the causse; no trace of it, however, has been discovered.
M. Delpon, author of a work published in 1831, and entitled 'Statistique du Departement du Lot,' mentions these fortified caverns of the Quercy in the following passage, which gives a vivid picture of the kind of life that the English companies led and made others lead in the fourteenth century:
'They (the English) possessed in the Quercy the forts of Roc-Amadour, Castelnau, Verdale, Vayrac, Lagarennie, Sabadel, Anglars, Frayssinet, Boussac and Assier, and some other castles on escarped hills from which it was difficult to expel them. They also seized upon caverns formed by nature in the flanks of precipitous rocks, and fortified them with walls in which all the character of English structures can still be recognised. The garrisons that occupied these places represented six thousand lances distributed over the Quercy, the Rouergue, and High Auvergne. When they sallied forth, the earth, to use an expression of one or their chiefs, Emerigot, surnamed Black Head, trembled under their feet.[*] They robbed travellers, made citizens prisoners—especially ecclesiastics—in order to extort exorbitant ransoms, they took from the peasants their beasts and their crops, and forced them to work in strengthening the dens of their spoliators with new fortifications. In fine, the Quercy was continually devastated, and the inhabitants only tilled the earth to satisfy the avidity of the English companies. The population could shield themselves from their violence only by concealing themselves in subterranean retreats, where traces of their sojourn are still observable. The English were continually recruited by all the depraved men of the provinces which they laid under contribution.'
[*] The entire passage from which these words are taken is to be found in Froissart's chronicles, and it runs as follows, the spelling being modernized: 'Que nous etions rejouis quand nous chevaussions a l'aventure et que nous pouvions trouver sur le champ un riche prieur ou marchand ou des mulets de Montpellier, de Narbonne, de Carcassone, de Limoux, de Beziers, de Toulouse, charges de draps, de brunelles, de pelleterie, venant de la foire de Landit, d'epiceries venant de Bruges, de draps de soie, de Damas ou d'Alexandrie. Les vilains nous pourvoyaient et apportaient dans nos chateaux le ble, la farine, le pain tout cuit, l'avoine pour les chevaux, le bon vin, les boeufs, les brebis, les moutons tous gras, la poulaille et la volataille. Nous etions servis, gouvernes et etoffes comme rois et princes, et quand nous chevaussions le pays tremblait devant nous.'
This last remark is only too well justified by the evidence which those centuries have handed down. Indeed, to such an extent were these companies composed of Aquitanians, that one may well ask if some of them contained a single genuine Englishman. I have found no record in the Quercy of the captain of a company of routiers having borne an Anglo-Saxon name. Two English captains who took Figeac by surprise (a document relating to this event, written in Latin of the fourteenth century, is to be found in the municipal archives) were named Bertrand de Lebret and Bertrand de Lasale. Those who captured Martel had names equally French. There is, of course, the hypothesis that these leaders were Anglicised Normans, but the stronger probability is that they were native adventurers of Aquitaine who found it to their interest to place themselves under the protection of the King of England.
Towards the close of the fourteenth century, all those who wished to drive the English out of Guyenne rallied round the chiefs of the house of Armagnac. This great family of the Rouergue, which was ultimately absorbed by the Royal House of France and became extinct, at one time espoused the British cause; but it contributed more than any other to the final dispersion of the English companies in Guyenne. In 1381 the people of the Gevaudan, the Quercy, and High Auvergne, solicited the help of the Count of Armagnac against the companies, and he accepted the leadership of the coalition. He convened a meeting of delegates at Rodez, to which the English chiefs were invited, and the decision that was then come to did not say much for the sagacity or the valour of those who represented the majority. It was agreed that the sum of 250,000 francs—equivalent to about 200,000 to-day—should be paid to the English on condition of their surrendering the fortresses which they occupied. This fact goes far to prove that the companies were virtually independent, and that although all their outrages were ostensibly committed in the British name, they were freebooters in the fullest sense of the word. Of the sum that was to be paid to them, the clergy were to contribute 25,000 francs, the nobles 16,660. The inhabitants of the Quercy agreed to pay 50,833 francs. The captains of the companies took oath that on receiving the money they would quit Guyenne for ever. They may have kept their oath, but their followers were not to be induced to change their habits so easily. The routiers, still going by the name of the English companies, continued to hold the least accessible places in Guyenne, fortified in the main by nature, until long after the British sovereigns had abandoned their ambitious designs in France.
In the fifteenth century so many of the inhabitants of the Quercy had been killed or ruined by the companies that some districts were almost depopulated. In the town of Gramat there were only seven inhabitants left at the close of the Hundred Years' War. In order that the lands should not remain uncultivated, the nobles enfeoffed them to strangers from the Rouergue and other neighbouring provinces. This circumstance is supposed to account in a large measure for the differences in dialect which are to be observed in adjoining communes. There is no evidence to-day, so far as I have been able to ascertain, of English words having been introduced into the Languedocian of Guyenne. The striking resemblance of many patois words to those of the English language bearing the same meaning—a resemblance that is helped by the Southern pronunciation of vowels and diphthongs—must be referred to linguistic influences far more remote and obscure than the political fact that Guyenne was intimately connected with English history for three hundred years. For example, that familiar animal the cat is called in Guyenne lou catou and even lou cat; but the word belongs to the Romance language, and is the same all through Languedoc and Provence. The fact that the English left no mark upon the language in Guyenne is almost a conclusive proof that such of the Anglo-Saxon stock as followed the Norman leaders into Aquitaine, and who remained in the country any length of time, were not sufficiently numerous to impose their idiom upon others. They probably did not preserve it long themselves; but, like the English grooms who find occupation in France today, they quickly adopted the language that was generally spoken around them. Patient investigation might, nevertheless, show that the English did leave some of their words, as well as their blood, in the country. It would, indeed, be astonishing if this were not so. Even the Greek colony at Marseilles and Aries, although far removed, must have influenced the dialect of Guyenne; for the peasants of the Quercy use the word hermal to describe a piece of waste land bordering a cultivated field, the origin of which expression was, doubtless, Hermes, the god of boundaries. This is not the only Greek word that has been corrupted, but nevertheless preserved, in the Quercy patois.
Wherever the English were long established in their fastnesses amidst the rocks which form the rugged sides of the deep-cut gorges of the Quercy, many of the inhabitants have clung, century after century, to the belief that the terrible freebooters buried a prodigious amount of treasure with the intention of returning and fetching it on the first opportunity. So persistently was this tradition handed down at Brengues that many years ago a cavern, the entrance of which had been covered over with stones and earth, having been accidentally discovered on the plateau just above the Chateau des Anglais, it was eagerly explored, as well as a similar cavern close by. The excitement was increased by the circumstance that the discovery of these openings appeared to coincide with the indications of a local witch. It was evident that the caverns had at one time been used by men, for they contained masonry put together with mortar. By dint of excavating, hidden galleries were revealed; but although a human skeleton was discovered, no treasure was found. The explorers, however, came upon a vast collection of bones of extinct animals, and of others which, although they are now to be found both in the Arctic and in the tropical regions, have not existed in a state of nature in France during the historic period. The bones of the reindeer, for instance, were found lying with those of the hyena and the rhinoceros, many of them embedded in the calcareous breccia so frequently seen in the valley of the Cele. Here was evidence of a glacial and a torrid period, separated by an aeonic gulf; but how the remains came to be piled one upon another in this way is a secret of the ancient earth. There are prodigious layers of these bones lying at a great depth in the rock, where there is no cavern to suggest that the animals entered by it, or that they were taken there by man. The beds of phosphate which English enterprise has turned to so good an account in this part of France, and which are followed in the earth just like a seam of coal or a vein of metal, are merely layers of bones. While I was at Brengues, the skeleton of a young rhinoceros was discovered in the phosphate mine at Cajarc.
On the hill above the Cele, on the side opposite to that where the Chateau des Anglais is to be seen, are the remains of an entrenched camp, upon the origin of which it is almost idle to speculate. In the same neighbourhood is a cavern situated high up in the face of a perpendicular rock. It is inaccessible by ordinary means; but a beam fixed at the entrance, and worn into a deep groove by a rope, shows that it was used as a refuge. A tradition says that Waifre hid himself there.
I passed the night at Brengues, and was awakened in the early morning by the jingle of bells just beneath my window, and a man's voice repeating, 'Te, Te, Te!' A couple of bullocks were being yoked, and presently they followed the man towards the fields of tobacco and maize by the little river, already shining in the sun. Very soon afterwards I, too, had begun my day's work.
In a little more than an hour I was at the next village—St. Sulpice. Here above the houses, huddled together like sheep on the lower steep of the right-hand hill, were the ruins of a castle, hanging to the rock that dwarfed it even in the days of its pride. I climbed to it, and found that it was built on terraces one above the other, formed by the rocky shelves. A considerable portion of the strong wall at the base of the structure remains, and on each terrace there is something left of the feudal fortress. Ivy, with gnarled and fantastic stocks, has so overspread the masonry in places that hardly a gray stone shows through the dense matting of sombre leaves and hoary, wrinkled stems. Multitudes of bats cling to the ruinous vaulting where the light is very dim, and lurk in the hollows of the rock. A stone thrown up will bring them fluttering down and whirling about the head of the intruder, noiselessly as if they were the ghosts that haunt the spot, but dare not reveal to the eye of man the human shape that they once wore. This castle belonged, and still belongs, to the D'Hebrard family, which was connected by marriage with the Cardaillacs and most of the ancient aristocracy of the Quercy.
Leaving St. Sulpice, another hour's walk down the valley brought me to Marcillac, which, after Figeac, was the most important place on the Cele in the Middle Ages. It is now, however, a mere village. According to local historians, it was here that Palladius, Bishop of Bourges, retired in the fifth century to escape from the persecution of the Arians. Nothing, however, that has been written of its history, prior to the ninth or tenth century, can be accepted with any confidence. What can be safely affirmed is, that here, between the rocky cliffs that border the Cele, arose one of the earliest of the Benedictine abbeys in France. The ruined cloisters of the monastery have all the severe charm of the simple Romanesque style of the early period, but there is no means of knowing whether they date from the tenth, eleventh, or twelfth century. There are several beautiful capitals elaborately embellished with intersecting line ornament still preserved, although no value whatever is placed upon them by the inhabitants. The cloisters are used for stables, and other common farm purposes.
The abbey church must have fallen into complete ruin, when a portion of it was restored and rebuilt in the fifteenth century. Then about half the nave—the western end—was cut off, and left open to the weather. It is roofless, and the visitor walking, now in deep shadow, now in brilliant light, as the fragments of masonry may hide or reveal the sun, sees the blue sky through the arches and over the tops of the ivy-covered walls. This part of the old church shows the transition between the Romanesque and the Gothic styles.
It would have been a slight upon Marcillac had I left the place without seeing the most famous of its caverns, which goes by the name of the Grotte de Robinet. I might have looked for it in vain all day had I not taken a guide.
First, the causse had to be reached by ascending the cliffs on the right bank of the Cele. Then I saw before me the stony undulating land, with the sad sentiment of which I had already grown so familiar. An old woman, nearly doubled up with age and field labour, but who plied her distaff as she led her black goats to browse upon the waste, made me understand that the solitude was not altogether bereft of human life. After walking a mile or so, we descended into a deep hollow wooded with those dwarf oaks which, together with the juniper, hid at one time most of the nakedness of these calcareous tracts that stretch from gorge to gorge. One might have supposed that such a dale would have had a spring at the bottom; but no: everywhere it was parched, arid, and rocky. The rain that falls all around goes to swell some deep subterranean stream that issues no one knows where. This peculiarity of the formation explains why nearly all the caussenards have no water, either for themselves or their animals, except that which they collect from the skies in tanks sunk in the earth. Since the failure of the vines—which formerly flourished upon the causses wherever there was a favourable slope—the peasants have learnt to make a mildly alcoholic liquor by gathering and fermenting the juniper berries, which previously they had never put to any use.
We had nearly ascended the opposite side of this wooded hollow, when the guide, pointing through the sunlit trees to a very dark but narrow opening in the rocks, said, 'There it is!' We had reached the cavern. He went first, carrying aloft a wisp of burning straw, which he renewed from time to time from the bundle that he carried under his arm.
The practice of burning straw, so that people may have a good flare-up for their money, has, together with the selfish custom of throwing stones at the stalactites, gone far to spoil all the caverns of this region, which have been much visited. The Grotte de Robinet must have been dazzlingly beautiful at one time, but now most of the stalagmite and stalactite has been completely blackened by smoke. Even the rocks, over which one has to climb, and sometimes crawl, are covered with a sooty slime, which gives one the appearance, when daylight returns, of having been smeared with lamp-black. I put on a blouse before entering, and had great reason to be glad that I did so. In spite of all the mischief that has been done to it, the Grotte de Robinet is a very remarkable cavern, and the time spent on the somewhat arduous and slippery task of exploring its depths is not wasted. Its length is about half a mile, and the descent, which is almost continuous, is at times very rapid. The passage connects a succession of vast and lofty spaces, which are not inappropriately termed salles. In some of these, the dropping water has raised from the floor of the cavern statuesque and awful forms of colossal grandeur. Some of these have been little changed by the smoke, but stand like white figures of fantastic giants. While looking at them, I thought how little I should like to be in the position of a certain cure of Marcillac, who spent three days and three nights in this weird company. He frequently entered the cavern alone, with a scientific object, and his familiarity with it led him to despise ordinary precautions. One day he was far underground, with only a single candle in his possession, and no matches. A drop of water from the roof put the candle out, and all his efforts to return by the way he came were futile. Meanwhile, his parishioners, hunting high and low for their cure, chanced to see his soutane, where he had left it, hanging to a bush at the entrance of the Grotte de Robinet, and when they rescued him, there was very little left of his passion for studying nature underground.
The most wonderful and the most beautiful object in the cavern is to be seen in the vast hall, which is the last of the series. This hall has a dome-shaped roof that rises to the height of about sixty feet, and it is supported in the centre, with every appearance of an architectural motive, by a single slender column that seems to have been carved with consummate skill out of alabaster. No image that I can think of conveys the picture of this exquisite stalagmite so justly as that of a column formed of the blossoms of lilies, each cup resting within another.
Having left Marcillac, I passed under the mediaeval village of Sauliac, built high up on a shelf of naked rock, and then reached Cabrerets, which lies two or three miles above the junction of the Cele and the Lot. The village is at the foot of towering limestone cliffs, and many of the houses are built against the gray and yellow stone. The most interesting structure, however, is the castellated one that clings to the face of the rock far above all inhabited dwellings. It goes by the name of the Chateau du Diable, and it is the most considerable of all the rock-fortresses in the valleys of the Cele and the Lot which are attributed to the English companies. It possesses towers and embattlements, and it was evidently intended to defend the defile from any force advancing from the wider valley. Here, doubtless, many a desperate struggle occurred before the companies were dispersed and English influence was finally overcome in these wilds of the Quercy. At a little distance from it, the long iron of a mediaeval arrow, having fastened its head in a cleft of the rock, remained sticking there for centuries, and was only recently removed. The Prefect of the Department took a fancy to it, and had not the good judgment to leave it where it had so long been an object of curiosity. There, resting in the place where the arm of the archer had cast it, it told a story of the old wars, and set the imagination working; but in a collection of local antiquities it is as dumb and almost as worthless as any other piece of old iron.
IN THE ALBIGEOIS.
A long dull road or street, a statue of the navigator La Perouse, a bandstand with a few trees about it, and plain, modern buildings without character, some larger and more pretentious than others, but all uninteresting. Is this Albi? No, but it is what appears to be so to the stranger who enters the place from the railway-station. The ugly sameness is what the improving spirit of our own times has done to make the ancient town decent and fit to be inhabited by folk who have seen something of the world north of Languedoc and who have learnt to talk of le comfortable. The improvement is undoubted, but so is the absolute lack of interest and charm; at least, to those who are outside of the persiennes so uniformly closed against the summer sun.
Albi, the veritable historic Albi, lies almost hidden upon a slope that leads down to the Tarn. Here is the marvellous cathedral built in the thirteenth century, after the long wars with the Albigenses; here is the Archbishop's fortified palace, still capable of withstanding a siege if there were no artillery; here are the old houses, one of pre-Gothic construction with very broad Romanesque window, slender columns and storied capitals, billet and arabesque mouldings; another of the sixteenth century quite encrusted with carved wood; and here are the dirty little streets like crooked lanes, where old women, who all through the summer months, Sundays excepted, give their feet an air-bath, may be seen sitting on the doorsteps clutching with one bony hand the distaff and drowsily turning the spindle with the other.
To live in one of these streets might disgust the unseasoned stranger for ever with Southern life; but to roam through them in the early twilight is the way to find the spirit of the past without searching. Effort spoils the spell. Strange indeed must have been the procession of races, parties and factions that passed along here between these very houses, or others which stood before them. Romans, Romanised Gauls, Visigoths, Saracens and English; the Raymonds with their Albigenses, the Montforts with their Crusaders from the north, the wild and sanguinary pastoiureux and the lawless routiers, the religious fanatics, Huguenots and Catholics of the sixteenth century, and the revolutionists of the eighteenth. All passed on their way, and the Tarn is no redder now for the torrents of blood that flowed into it.
Notwithstanding that the name Albigenses was given after the council of Lombers to the new Manichaeans, Albi was less identified with the great religious and political struggle of Southern Gaul in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries than were Castres and other neighbouring towns. If, however, it was comparatively fortunate as regards the horrors of that ferocious war, it was severely scourged by the most appalling epidemics of the Middle Ages. Leprosy and the pest had terrors greater even than those of battle. The cruelty of those feudal ages finds one of its innumerable records in the treatment of the miserable lepers at Albi. Having taken the disease which the Crusaders brought back from the East, they were favoured with a religious ceremony distressingly similar to the office for the dead. A black pall was thrown over them while they knelt at the altar steps. At the close of the service a priest sprinkled some earth on the condemned wretches, and then they were led to the leper-house, where each was shut up in a cell from which he never came out alive. The black pall and the sprinkled earth were symbols which every patient understood but too well.
In nothing is the stern spirit of those ages expressed more forcibly than in the religious buildings of Languedoc. The cathedral of St. Cecilia at Albi is the grandest of all the fortified churches of Southern France, although in many others the defensive purpose has made less concession to beauty. Looking at it for the first time, the eye is wonder-struck by its originality, the nobleness of its design, and the grandeur of its mass. The plan being that of a vast vaulted basilica without aisles, the walls of the nave, rise sheer from the ground to above the roof, and are pierced at intervals with lofty but very narrow windows, the arches slightly pointed and containing simple tracery. The buttresses which help the walls to support the vaulting of the nave and choir are the most remarkable feature of the design, and, together with the tower, which rises in diminishing stages to the height of 260 feet and there ends in an embattled platform, account for the singularly feudal and fortress-like character of the building. The outline of the buttresses being that of a semi-ellipse, they look like turrets carried up the entire face of the wall. The floor of the church is many feet above the ground, and the entrance was originally protected by a drawbridge and portcullis; but these military works were removed in the sixteenth century, and in their place was raised, upon a perron reached by a double flight of steps, a baldachino-like porch as airily graceful and delicately florid as the body to which it is so lightly attached is majestically stern and scornful of ornament. The meeting here of those two great forces, the Renaissance and feudalism, is like that of Psyche and Mars. But in expression the porch is Gothic, for although the arches are round-headed, they are surmounted by an embroidery of foliated gables and soaring pinnacles. It can scarcely be said that the style has been broken, but the contrast in feeling is strong.
Enter the church and observe the same contrast there. Gothic art within the protecting walls and under the strong tower puts forth its most delicate leaves and blossoms. Across the broad nave, nearly in the centre, is drawn a rood-screen—a piece of stonework that has often been compared to lace, but which gains nothing by the comparison. The screen, together with the enclosure of the choir, with which it is connected, is quite bewildering by the multiplicity of arches, gables, tabernacles, pinnacles, statues, leaves, and flowers. The tracery is flamboyant, and the work dates from the beginning of the sixteenth century. The artificers are said to have been a company of wandering masons from Strasburg.
Two vast drum-shaped piers, serving to support the tower, are exposed to view at the west end of the nave; but, for the bad effect thus produced, compensation is offered by the very curious paintings, supposed to be of the fifteenth century, with which the surfaces of these piers are covered. They represent the Last Judgment and the torments of the damned. Each of the seven capital sins has its compartment, wherein the kind of punishment reserved for sinners under this head is set forth in a manner as quaint as are the inscriptions in old French beneath. The compartment, illustrating the eternal trouble of the envious has this inscription:
'La peine des envieux et envieuses. Les envieus et envieuses sont en ung fleuve congele plonges jusques au nombril et par dessus les frappe un vent moult froid et quant veulent icelluy vent eviter se plongent dedans ladite glace.'
All the wall-surfaces, the vaulting included, are covered with paintings. The effect clashes with Northern taste, but the absence of a columnar system affords a plausible reason for relieving the sameness of these large surfaces with colour. The Gothic style of the North, holding in itself such decorative resources, gains nothing from mural paintings, but always loses something of its true character when they are added. Apart from such considerations, the wall-paintings in the cathedral of Albi have accumulated such interest from time that no reason would excuse their removal.
This unique church was mainly built at the close of the thirteenth century, together with the Archbishop's palace, with which it was connected in a military sense by outworks. These have disappeared, but the fortress called a palace remains, and is still occupied by the Archbishop. It is a gloomy rectangular mass of brick, absolutely devoid of elegance, but one of the most precious legacies of the Middle Ages in France. It is not so vast as the papal palace at Avignon, but its feudal and defensive character has been better preserved, for, unlike the fortress by the Rhone, it has not been adapted to the requirements of soldiers' barracks. At each of the angles is a round tower, pierced with loopholes, and upon the intervening walls are far-descending machicolations. The building is still defended on the side of the Tarn by a wall of great height and strength, the base of which is washed by the river in time of flood. This rampart, with its row of semi-elliptical buttresses corresponding to those of the church and its pepper-box tower at one end, the fortress a little above, and the cathedral on still higher ground, but in immediate neighbourhood, make up an assemblage of mediaeval structures that seems as strange in this nineteenth century as some old dream rising in the midst of day-thoughts. And the rapid Tarn, an image of perpetual youth, rushes on as it ever did since the face of Europe took its present form.
As I write, other impressions come to mind of this ancient town on the edge of the great plain of Languedoc. A little garden in the outskirts became familiar to me by daily use, and I see it still with its almond and pear trees, its trellised vines, the blue stars of its borage, and the pure whiteness of its lilies. A bird seizes a noisy cicada from a sunny leaf, and as it flies away the captive draws out one long scream of despair. Then comes the golden evening, and its light stays long upon the trailing vines, while the great lilies gleam whiter and their breath floods the air with unearthly fragrance. A murmur from across the plain is growing louder and louder as the trees lose their edges in the dusk, for those noisy revellers of the midsummer night, the jocund frogs, have roused themselves, and they welcome the darkness with no less joy than the swallows some hours later will greet the breaking dawn.
I left Albi to ascend the valley of the Tarn in the last week of June. I started when the sun was only a little above the plain; but the line of white rocks towards the north, from which Albi is supposed to take its name, had caught the rays and were already burning. The straight road, bordered with plane-trees, on which I was walking would have had no charm but for certain wayside flowers. There was a strange-looking plant with large heart-shaped leaves and curved yellow blossoms ending in a long upper lip that puzzled me much, and it was afterwards that I found its name to be aristolochia clematitis. It grows abundantly on the banks of the Tarn. Another plant that I now noticed for the first time was a galium with crimson flowers. I soon came to the cornfields for which the Albigeois plain is noted. Here the poppy showed its scarlet in the midst of the stalks of wheat still green, and along the borders were purple patches of that sun-loving campanula, Venus's looking-glass.
Countrywomen passed me with baskets on their heads, all going into Albi to sell their vegetables. Those who were young wore white caps with frills, which, when there is nothing on the head to keep them down, rise and fall like the crest of a cockatoo; but the old women were steadfast in their attachment to the bag-like, close-fitting cap, crossed with bands of black velvet, and having a lace front that covers most of the forehead. When upon this coif is placed a great straw hat with drooping brim, we have all that remains now of an Albigeois costume. As these women passed me, I looked into their baskets. Some carried strawberries, some cherries, others mushrooms (boleti), or broad beans. The last-named vegetable is much cultivated throughout this region, where it is largely used for making soup. When very young, the beans are frequently eaten raw with salt. Almost every taste is a matter of education.
The heat of the day had commenced when I reached the village of Lescure. This place is of very ancient origin. Looking at it now, and its agricultural population numbering little more than a thousand, it is difficult to realize its importance in the Middle Ages. The castle and the adjacent land were given in the year 1003 by King Robert to his old preceptor, the learned Gerbert, who became known to posterity as Pope Sylvester II. In the eleventh century, Lescure was, therefore, a fief of the Holy See; and in the time of Simon de Montfort the inhabitants were still vassals of the Pope. In the fourteenth century they were frequently at war with the people of Albi, who eventually got the upper hand. Then Sicard, the Baron of Lescure, was so completely humiliated that he not only consented to pay eighty gold livres to the consuls of Albi, but went before them bareheaded to ask pardon for himself and his vassals. Already the feudal system was receiving hard blows in the South of France from the growth of the communes and the authority vested in their consuls. What is left of the feudal grandeur of Lescure? The castle was sold in the second year of the Republic, and entirely demolished, with the exception of the chapel, which is now the parish church. Of the outer fortifications there remains a brick gateway, with Gothic arch carrying a high machicolated tower, connected to which is a fragment of the wall. To this old houses, half brick, half wood, still cling, like those little wasps' nests that one sees sometimes upon the sides of the rocks.
On entering the small fourteenth-century church, I found that it had been decorated for a funeral. A broad band of black drapery, upon which had been sewn at intervals Death's heads and tears, cut out of white calico, was hung against the wall of the apse, and carried far down each side of the nave. To me all those grinning white masks were needless torture to the mourners; but here again we are brought to recognise that taste is a matter of education.
More interesting than anything else in this church is the Romanesque holy-water stoup, with heads and crosses carved upon it, and possibly belonging to the original chapel of the castle. The chief archaeological treasure, however, of Lescure is a church on a little hill above the village, and overlooking the Tarn. It is dedicated to St. Michael, in accordance with the mediaeval custom of considering the highest ground most appropriate to the veneration of the archangel. It is Romanesque of the eleventh century, and belonged to a priory of which no other trace is left. The building stands in the midst of an abandoned cemetery; and at the time of my visit the tall June grasses, the poppies and white campions hid every mound and almost every wooden cross. Over the gateway, carved in the stone, is the following quaint inscription, the spelling being similar to that frequently used in the sixteenth century:
'Sur la terre autrefois nous fumes comme vous. Mortels penses y bien et pries Dieu pour nous.'
Beneath these lines are a skull and cross-bones, with a tear on each side.
Facing the forgotten graves, upon this spot removed from all habitations, is the most beautiful Romanesque doorway of the Albigeois. The round-headed arch widening outwards, its numerous archivolts and mouldings, the slender columns of the deeply-recessed jambs, the storied capitals with their rudely-proportioned but expressive little figures, and the row of uncouth bracket-heads over the crowning archivolt, represent the best art of the eleventh century. They show that Romanesque architecture and sculpture had already reached their perfect expression in Languedoc. The figures in the capitals tell the story of Adam and Eve, Abraham and Isaac, and of fiends busily engaged in tormenting mortals who must have been in their clutches now eight hundred years. The nave has two aisles, and massive piers with engaged columns support the transverse and lateral arches. The columns have very large capitals, displaying human figures, some of which are extraordinarily fantastic, and instinct with a wild imagination still running riot in stone. How far are we now from the minds that bred these thoughts when Southern Gaul was struggling to develop a new Roman art by the aid of such traditions and models as the Visigoth, the Frank, and the Arab had not destroyed in the country, and such ideas as were brought along the Mediterranean from Byzantium!
Lastly, I came to the apse, that part of a Romanesque church in which the artist seizes the purely religious ideal, or allows it to escape him. Here was the serenity, here the quietude of the early Christian purpose and hope. Perfect simplicity and perfect eloquence! Nothing more is to be said, except that there were stone benches against the wall and a piscina—details interesting to the archaeologist. Then I walked round the little church, knee-deep in the long grave-grass, and noted the broad pilaster-strips of the apse, the stone eaves ornamented with billets, the bracket or corbel heads just beneath, fantastic, enigmatic, and not two alike.
Leaving this spot, where there was so much temptation to linger, I began to cross a highly-cultivated plain towards the village of Arthez, where the Tarn issues from the deep gorges which for many a league give it all the character of a mountain-river. I thought from the appearance of the land that everybody who lived upon it must be prosperous and happy, but a peasant whom I met was of another way of thinking. He said:
'By working from three o'clock in the morning until dark, one can just manage to earn one's bread.'
They certainly do work exceedingly hard, these peasant-proprietors and metayers, never counting their hours like the town workmen, but wishing that the day were longer, and if they can contrive to save anything in these days it is only by constant self-denial. A man's labour upon his land to-day will only support him, taking the bad years with the good, on the condition that he lives a life of primitive simplicity. Even then the problem of existence is often a terribly hard one to solve. In the South of France the blame is almost everywhere laid to the destruction of the vines by the phylloxera, but here in the plain of Albi the land is quite as suitable for corn as it is for grape-growing, which is far from being the case elsewhere; nevertheless, the peasants cry out with one voice against the bad times. They have to contend with two great scourges: hail that is so often brought by the thunder-storms in summer, and which the proximity of the Pyrenees may account for; and the south-east wind—le vent d'autan—that comes across from Africa, and scorches up the crops in a most mysterious manner. But for this plague the yield of fruit would be enormous. On the other hand, the region is blessed with lavish sunshine from early spring until November, and a half-maritime climate, explained by the neighbourhood of the ocean—not the Mediterranean—renders long periods of drought such as occur in Provence and Lower Languedoc rare. In the valleys the soil is extremely fertile, and, favoured by moisture and warmth, its productive power is extraordinary. Four crops of lucern are taken from the same land in the course of a season. Unfortunately, these valleys being mere gorges—cracks in the plain, with precipitous rocky sides—the strip of land bordering the stream at the bottom is usually very narrow.
On reaching Arthez, the character of the country changed suddenly and completely. Here the plain with its tertiary deposits ended, and in its stead commenced the long series of schistous rocks wildly heaped up and twisted out of their stratification, by which the Tarn is hemmed in for seventy miles as the crow flies, and nearly twice that distance if the windings of the gorge be reckoned. When the calcareous region of the Gevaudan is reached, the schist, slate, and gneiss disappear. On descending to the level of the river at Arthez, I saw before me one of the grandest cascades in France—the Saut de Sabo.
It is not so much the distance that the river falls in its rapid succession of wild leaps towards the plain as the singularly chaotic and savage scene of dark rocks and raging waters, together with the length to which it is stretched out, that is so impressive. The mass of water, the multitude of cascades, and the wild forms of the rocks, compose a scene that would be truly sublime if one could behold it in the midst of an unconquered solitude; but the hideous sooty buildings of a vast iron foundry on one bank of the river are there to spoil the charm.
I stayed in the village of Arthez for food and rest, but not long enough for the mid-day heat to pass. When I set forth again on my journey, the air was like the breath of a furnace; but as the slopes were well wooded with chestnuts, there was some shelter from the rays of the sun. There were a few patches of vineyard, the leaves showing the ugly stains of sulphate of copper with which they had been splashed as a precaution against mildew, which in so many districts has followed in the wake of the phylloxera, and hastened the destruction of the old vines. The Albigeois has ceased to be a wine-producing region, and, judging from present signs, it will be long in becoming one again.
The valley, deepening and narrowing, became a gorge, the beginning of that long series of fissures in the metamorphic and secondary rocks which, crossing an extensive tract of Languedoc and Guyenne, leads the traveller up to the Cevennes Mountains, through scenery as wild and beautiful as any that can be found in France, and perhaps in Europe. But the difficulties of travelling by the Tarn from Arthez upwards are great, and, indeed, quite forbidding to those who are not prepared to endure petty hardships in their search for the picturesque. Between Albi and St. Affrique, a distance that cannot be easily traversed on foot in less than four days, railways are not to be thought of, and the line of route taken by the diligence leaves the Tarn far to the north. In the valley the roads often dwindle away to mere paths or mule-tracks, or they are so rocky that riding either upon or behind a horse over such an uneven surface, with the prospect of being thrown into the Tarn in the event of a slip, is unpleasant work. Those who are unwilling to walk or unable to bear much fatigue should not attempt to follow this river through its gorges. All the difficulties have not yet been stated. Along the banks of the stream, and for several miles on either side of it, there are very few villages, and the accommodation in the auberges is about as rough as it can be. The people generally are exceedingly uncouth, and between Arthez and Millau, where a tourist is probably the rarest of all birds of passage, the stranger must not expect to meet with a reception invariably cordial. Even a Frenchman who appears for the first time in one of their isolated villages, and who cannot speak the Languedocian dialect, is looked upon almost as a foreigner, and is treated with suspicion by the inhabitants. This matter of language is in itself no slight difficulty. French is so little known that in many villages the clergy are compelled to preach in patois to make themselves understood.
This region I had now fairly entered. The road had gone somewhere up the hills, and I was walking beside the river upon sand glittering with particles of mica. This sand the Tarn leaves all along its banks. It is one of the most uncertain and treacherous of streams. In a few hours its water will rise with amazing rapidity and spread consternation in a district where not a drop of rain has fallen. Warm winds from the south and south-west, striking against the cold mountains in the Lozere, have been condensed, and the water has flowed down in torrents towards the plain. The river is as clear as crystal now, and the many-coloured pebbles of its bed reflect the light, but a thunderstorm in the higher country may change it suddenly to the colour of red earth.
The path led me into a steep forest, where I lost sight of the Tarn. The soil was too rocky for the trees—oaks and chestnuts chiefly—to grow very tall; consequently the underwood, although dense, was chequered all through with sunshine. Heather and bracken, holly and box, made a wilderness that spread over all the visible world, for the opposite side of the gorge was exactly similar. Shining in the sun amidst the flowering heather or glowing in majestic purple grandeur in the shade of shrubs stood many a foxglove, and almost as frequently seen was its relative digitalis lutea, whose flowers are much smaller and of a pale yellow. Now and again a little rill went whispering downward through the woods under plumes of forget-me-nots in a deep channel that it had cut by working age after age. Reaching at length a spot where I could look down into the bottom of the fissure, I perceived a small stream that was certainly not the Tarn. I had been ascending one of the lateral gorges of the valley, and had left the river somewhere to the north. My aim was now to strike it again in the higher country, and so I kept on my way. But the path vanished, and the forest became so dense that I was bound to realize that I was in difficulties. I resolved to try the bank of the stream, and reached it after some unpleasant experience of rocks, brambles and holly. Here, however, was a path which I followed nearly to the head of the gorge and then climbed to the plateau. There the land was cultivated, and the musical note of a cock turkey that hailed my coming from afar, as he swaggered in front of his harem on the march, led me to a spot where a man was mowing, and he told me where I should find the Tarn, which he, like all other people in the country, pronounced Tar.
Evening was coming on when I had crossed this plateau, and I saw far below me the village of Marsal on the banks of the shining Tarn. The river here made one of those bold curves which add so much to its beauty. The little village looked so peaceful and charming that I decided to seek its hospitality for that night.
There was but one inn at Marsal that undertook to lodge the stranger, and very seldom was any claim of the sort made upon it. The peasant family who lived in it looked to their bit of land and their two or three cows to keep them, not to the auberge. The bottles of liquor on the shelf were rarely taken down, except on Sundays, when villagers might saunter in, to gossip and smoke over coffee and eau de vie, or the glass of absinthe, which, since the failure of the vines in the South of France, has become there the most convivial of all drinks, although it makes men more quarrelsome than any other. In these poor riverside villages, however, where a mere ribbon of land is capable of cultivation—which, although exceedingly fertile, is constantly liable to be flooded by the uncertain Tarn—men have so little money in their pockets that water is their habitual drink, and when they depart from this rule they make a little dissipation go a very long way.
I found this single auberge closed, and all the family in an adjoining field around a waggon already piled with hay, to which a couple of cows were harnessed. My appearance there brought the pitchforks suddenly to a rest. If I had been shot up from below like a stage-devil, these people could not have stared at me with greater amazement and a more frank expression of distrust. First in patois, and then, seeing that I was at a loss, in scarcely intelligible French, they asked me what my trade was, and what object I had in coming to Marsal. I tried to explain that I was not a mischievous person, that I was travelling merely to look at their beautiful rocks and gorges, but I failed completely to bring a hospitable expression into their faces. An old man of the party was the worst to deal with. He put the greatest number of questions and understood the least French, and all the while there was a most provokingly keen, suspicious glitter in his little gray eyes. Presently he beckoned me, and led the way, as I thought, to the inn; but such was not his intention. He stopped at the door of the communal school, where the schoolmaster was already waiting for me, for he had evidently been warned of the presence of a doubtful-looking stranger, who had come to the village on foot with a pack on his back, and who, being dressed a trifle better than the ordinary tramp, was probably the more dangerous for this reason. Like most of the village schoolmasters in France, this gentleman was also secretary at the mairie, a function highly stimulating to the sense of self-importance, and no wonder, considering that the person who fills it frequently supplies the mayor, who may scarcely be able to sign his name to official documents, with such intelligence as he may need for his public duties.
This schoolmaster was affable and pleasant, but as a crowd quickly collected to see what would happen, he was not going to let a good opportunity slip of showing how indispensable he was to the safety of the village. He said that personally he was quite satisfied with my explanations, but that in his official capacity he was compelled to ask me for my papers. These were forthcoming, and the serious official air with which he pretended to read the English passport from beginning to end was very pretty comedy, considering that he did not understand a word of the language.
Having asserted his importance, and made the desired impression, he invited me into his house, introduced me to his young wife, who was charmingly gracious, and who would have been pleased to see any fresh face at Marsal—English or Hottentot. I was really indebted to the schoolmaster, for he harangued in patois the people of the inn drawn up in line, and by seizing a word here and there, I made out that I was a respectable Englishman travelling to improve my mind, and that they might receive me into their house without any distrust. And they did receive me, almost with open arms, when their doubts were removed.
The old man slunk off, and I never saw him again; but the young couple to whom the inn had been given up now proved to me that their only wish was to please. They were rough people, but sound at heart and honest, as the French peasants, when, judged in the mass, undoubtedly are. The hostess, who, by-the-bye, gave me a soup-plate in which to wash my hands, was greatly perplexed to know how to get up a dinner for me, and, as she told me afterwards, she went to the schoolmaster and held a consultation with him on the subject. An astonishing dish of minced asparagus fried in oil was concocted in accordance with his prescription. It was ingenious, but I preferred her dish of barbel from the Tarn, notwithstanding the multitudinous bones which this fish perversely carries in its body, to choke the enemy, although nothing could be more absurd than such petty vengeance.
The schoolmaster's wife said to me, with a suggestion of malice at the corners of her mouth, that she was afraid I should be troubled by a few fleas at the auberge.
'Oh, bast!' observed her husband; 'monsieur in his travels has doubtless already encountered a flea or two.'
'Yes, and other bestioles,' said I.
Madame's local knowledge did not deceive her, but her expression 'a few fleas' did not at all represent the true state of affairs. And I had forgotten the precious powder and the little pair of bellows, without which no one should travel in Southern France.
The morning air was fresh, and the fronds of the bracken were wet with dew, when I left Marsal, and took my course along the margin of the river through meadows that dwindled away into woodlands, where the rocky sides of the gorge rose abruptly from the stream. Haymakers were abroad, and I heard the sound of their scythes cutting through the heavy swathes with all their flowers; but the sunshine had not yet flashed down into the deep valley, and the grasshoppers were waiting to hail it from their watch-towers in the green herbage and on the purple heather. As the breeze stirred the leaves of the wood, it brought with it the perfume of hidden honeysuckle. Golden oriels were busy in the tops of the wild cherry trees, feeding upon the ripe fruit, and calling out their French name, loriot; and when they flew across the river, a gleam of brilliant yellow moved swiftly over the rippled surface. For an hour or so I remained in the shade of trees, and then the sandy path met a road where the gorge widened and cultivation returned. Here I left the stream for awhile.
Now came sunny banks bright with the common flowers that deck most of the waysides of Europe. Bedstraw galium and field scabious, ox-eyes and knapweed, bladder-campions and ragged robins, mallows and crane's-bill—all the flowers of the English banks seemed to be there. Where the bare rock showed itself, yellow sedum spread its gold, and in the little clefts stood stalks of cotyledon, now turning brown. At the base of the rocks, where there was still some moisture, were the blue flowers of the brooklime veronica, and the brighter blue of the forget-me-not. Having passed a village, I met the Tarn again. Here the beauty of the rushing water, and all that was pictured upon it, tempted me to sit down upon a bank; but I had no sooner chosen the spot than I changed my intention. A red viper was curled up there, and sleeping so comfortably that it really seemed unkind to wake it with a blow across all its rings. When I thought, however, of the little consideration it would have shown me had I sat upon it, I added it without compunction to the number of aspics I had already slain.
My mind was taken off the contemplation of this good or evil deed by a scene that seemed to contain as much of the picturesque as the eye could seize and the mind dwell upon, without being bewildered and fatigued. I had turned the bend of the wooded gorge, and, looking up the river, saw what resembled a dyke of basalt stretching sheer across the stream, with a ruined castle on a bare and apparently inaccessible pinnacle, another ruin on the opposite end of the ridge, and, between the two, a little church on the brink of a precipice. Houses were clustered at the foot of the rocks by the blue water.
This was Ambialet, so called from the extraordinary loop which the Tarn forms here in consequence of the mass of schistous rock which obstructs its direct channel. After flowing about two miles round a high promontory, where dark crags jut above the dark woods, the stream returns almost to the spot from which it was compelled to deviate, and the lower water is only separated from the upper by a few yards of rock. There are several similar phenomena in France, but there is none so remarkable as that at Ambialet.
Although nothing is now to be seen of its defensive works, except the ruined castle upon the high rock, Ambialet was one of the strongest places in the Albigeois. Now a small and poor village, it was in the Middle Ages an important burg, with its consuls, its council of prud'hommes, and its court of justice. It became a fief of the viscounts of Beziers, and was thus drawn into the great religious conflict of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the Viscount of Beziers having espoused the cause of Count Raymond of Toulouse. An army of Crusaders, which had been raised to crush the Albigenses, having Simon de Montfort at its head, appeared before Ambialet in 1209, and, although the burghers were quite capable of withstanding a long siege, they were so much impressed by the magnitude of the force brought against them, and also by Simon's sinister reputation, that they surrendered the place almost immediately. But when the army was campaigning elsewhere, these burghers, growing bold again, attacked the garrison that had been left in the town and castle, and distinguished themselves by one of those treacherous massacres which were among the small incidents of that ruthless war. When Simon reappeared in the Albigeois, the people of Ambialet, cowards again, laid down their arms. The castle was soon afterwards the meeting-place of De Montfort and Raymond VI.; but the interview, which it was hoped would lead to peace, had no such result, and the war was carried on in Languedoc and Guyenne with renewed fury.
Ambialet was enjoying comparative freedom and self-government in an age when many a town was still in the midnight darkness of feudal servitude. It had its communal liberties and organization before the eleventh century. There is a very interesting charter in existence, dated 1136, by which Roger, Viscount of Beziers and Albi, recognises and confirms these liberties. Although it opens in Latin, the body of the charter is in the Romance language. It shows that the idiom of Southern Gaul in the twelfth century was a little nearer the Latin than that which is spoken now. The document is full of curious information. It tells us that the inhabitants of Ambialet were liable to be fined if they did not keep the street in front of their houses clean. Perhaps the towns in the South of France were less foul in the twelfth century than most of them are now. We learn, too, that the profits in connection with the most necessary trades were fixed in the interest of the greater number. Thus, the butchers were required to take oath that they would reserve for their own profit no more than the head of the animal that they killed. What sort of face would a butcher of to-day make if he were asked to work on such terms? The tavern-keepers had to take oath that they would buy no wine outside of the boundaries of the viscounty of Ambialet, which shows what was thought in the twelfth century of the practice of purchasing in the cheapest market to the neglect of communal interests. The price of wine, like that of bread, was fixed, and five worthies (prohomes) were appointed to examine weights and measures, and to confiscate those which were not just. The concluding part of the charter confirms the right of the youth of Ambialet to their traditional festivals and merry-making: 'E volem e auctreiam que lo Rei del Joven d'Ambilet puesco far sas festas, tener sos senescals e sos jutges, e sos sirvens e sos officials,' etc. The whole passage is worth giving in English, because historians tell us very little about the festive manners of the twelfth century:
'We wish and order that the King of Youth of Ambialet shall keep his festivals, have his seneschals, judges, servants, and officials, and that on the day appointed for the merry-making, the King of Youth shall demand from the most recently married man in the viscounty, and woman who shall have taken a husband, a pail of wine and a quarter of walnuts; and if they refuse, the king can order his officers to break the doors of their house, and neither we nor our bailiffs shall have the right to interfere. And any person who shall have cut ever so little from the leaves of the elm, planted upon the place, shall be sentenced by the King of Youth to pay a pail of wine, and the king can enforce it as above. Moreover, we declare that on the first day of May the youth shall have the right to set up a maypole, and any person who shall cut a portion of it shall owe a pail of wine, and the king can compel him to pay it, for such is our wish. We have granted this favour to the youth because, having been a witness of their merry-making, we have taken great pleasure and satisfaction therefrom.'
This custom has been continued to the present day. The youth of Ambialet have their annual festival, and the most recently married couple of the commune are called upon to 'pay' their pail of wine, although the exact measure is not strictly enforced.
The rocks at Ambialet at one time supported a multitude of dwellings, of which there would be no trace now had they been entirely of masonry. In addition to partial chambers made with the pick-axe, one sees here and there a series of stairs cut out of the mica-schist. The strength of the burg made it a place of refuge for numerous families in the Albigeois, who had retreats upon these rocks to which they repaired in time of danger. All that made up the grandeur and importance of the place has passed away. Among those who now guide the plough and scatter the grain for bread are descendants of the old nobility of the Albigeois.
Fascinated by the quietude and picturesque decay of this beautiful spot by the Tarn, instead of leaving it in a few hours, as I had intended, I remained there for days. Let no wayfarer, if he can help it, be the slave of a programme.
On the side of the promontory already mentioned, a rough bit of ancient forest, steep and craggy, stretches down to the strip of cultivated land beside the river. Here chance led me to take up my abode in an old farm-house—a long building of one story, with dovecot raised above the roof, and massive walls that kept the rooms cool even in the sultry afternoons. It was half surrounded by an orchard of plum, peach, apple, and cherry trees, and at the border of this were three majestic stone-pines, whose vast heads were lifted so high and seemed so full of radiance that they appeared to belong more to the sky than to the earth. The gleam of the oriel's golden breast could be seen amidst the branches, but the little birds that flew up there were lost to sight in the sunny wilderness of tufted leaves.
On the stony slope above the orchard, the stock of an old and leafless vine, showing here and there over the purple flush of flowering marjoram and the more scattered gold of St. John's-wort, told the story of the perished vineyard. For centuries a rich wine had flowed from these slopes, but at length the phylloxera spread over them like flame, and now where the vine is dead the wild-flower blooms. A little higher a fringe of broom, the blossom gone, the pods blackening and shooting their seeds in the sun, marked the line of the virgin wilderness. Then came tall heather and bracken, dwarf oak and chestnut, box and juniper, all luxuriating about the blocks of mica-schist, a rock that holds water and is therefore conducive to a varied and splendid vegetation, wherever a soil can rest upon it. Towards the summit the trees and shrubs dwindled away, and then came the dry thyme-covered turf scenting the air. The tall thyme, the garden species in the North, had already flowered, but the common wild thyme of England, the serpolet of the French, was beginning to spread its purple over the stony ground. A great wooden cross stood upon the ridge, and hard by, buffeted by the wintry winds and blazed upon by the summer sun, was the ancient priory of Notre Dame de l'Oder.
I ring the bell. Presently a little wicket is pulled back, and a dark eye glitters at me from the other side of the door. It belongs to a serving brother, who, perceiving that I am not in petticoats, allows me to enter.
While I am waiting for the Pere Etienne, a Franciscan of wide learning, whose acquaintance had already brought me both pleasure and profit, I sit in the cloisters watching another Father counting the week's washing, which has just been brought in, and neatly folding up handkerchiefs and undergarments. He has placed a board across a wheelbarrow, and the heap of linen is upon this. Seated upon a stool, he leisurely takes each great coarse handkerchief with blue border, which, like the rest of the linen, has not been ironed, folds it into four, lays it upon another board, smooths it with his large, thin yellow hand, and so goes on with his task without saying a word or raising his eyes. He is a gaunt, angular, sallow man of about fifty, with hollow cheeks and long black beard. He has a melancholy air, and does his work as though he were thinking all the while that it is a part of the sum of labour he has to get through before reaching that perfect state of felicity in which there is no more washing to be done or counted. If there were only monks in the priory, this one would have very little to do in looking after the linen; but there are many boys who, although they are being educated with a view to the religious life, have not yet put off such worldly things as shirts.
Very different from the sombre-looking Franciscan, bent over the wheelbarrow, is the Pere Etienne. He is as cheerful and sprightly as if he were now convinced that a convent is the pleasantest place on earth to live in, and that outside of it all is vanity and vexation. He teaches the boys Latin, Greek, English, and the physical sciences. Although he has never been out of France and Italy, he can speak English, and actually make himself understood. He is a botanist, and he and I have already spent some hours together in his cell before a table strewn with floras and plants, both dry and fresh. This time we are joined by a young monk who has been gathering flowers on the banks of the Tarn, and has placed them between the leaves of a great Latin Bible.
These meetings, and the library of the priory, with its valuable works by local historians, strengthened the spell by which Ambialet held me. The monks whom one occasionally meets in Languedoc are generally men of better culture than the ordinary rural clergy, most of whom show plainly enough by their ideas and the vigorous expressions which they rarely hesitate to use in any company that they are sons of the soil. As priests, situated as they are, this coarseness of manners and circumscribed range of ideas, so far from being a disadvantage, forms a bond of union between them and the people. A man to be deeply pitied is he who, having a really superior and cultivated mind, is charged with the cure of souls in some forlorn parish where nobody has the time or the taste to read. Such a priest must either bring his ideas down to those of the people around him, or be content to live in absolute intellectual isolation. He may turn to the companionship of books, it is true, but his library is very small; and if, as is probable, his income is not more than 40 a year, he is too poor to add to it. Such a revenue, when the bare needs of the body have been met, does not leave much for satisfying a literary appetite.
The priory of Notre Dame de l'Oder was founded in the twelfth or thirteenth century by the Benedictines, but a church already existed on the spot as early, it is supposed, as the eighth century. The one now standing, and which became incorporated with the priory, probably dates from the eleventh. If the interior is cold by the severity of the lines scarcely broken by ornament, the artistic sense is warmed by the beauty of the proportions and general disposition. The apse, with its three little windows, has the perfect charm of grace and simplicity. A structural peculiarity, to be especially noted as one of the tentative efforts of Romanesque art, is the use of half-arches for the vaulting of the two narrow aisles. Unfortunately, the plastering mania, which has robbed the interior of so many French churches of their venerable air, has not spared this one. A singularly broad flight of steps, partly cut in the rock and covered with tiles, leads up to the portal; but as the building has been closed to the public since the application of the law dispersing religious communities, these steps look as if they belonged to the Castle of Indolence, so overgrown with grass are they and abandoned to the wandering wild-flowers. Great mulleins have been allowed to spring up from the gaps between the lichen-spotted tiles.
When there was a regular community of monks here, the ancient pilgrimage to Notre Dame de l'Oder was kept up, and near the top of the via crucis, which forms a long succession of zigzags upon the bare rock, a dark shrub or small tree allied to box may be seen railed off with an image of the Virgin against it. According to the legend, a Crusader returning from the Holy Land made a pilgrimage to the sanctuary upon these rocks at Ambialet, and planted on the hill the staff he had brought with him. This grew to a tree, to which the people of the country gave the name of oder. In course of time it came to be so venerated that Notre Dame d'Ambialet was changed to Notre Dame de l'Oder. The existing tree is said to be a descendant of the original one.
The monks at the priory told me that nearly all the old historical documents relating to Ambialet had been taken away by the English and placed in the Tower of London. In various parts of the Quercy, I had also been told exactly the same with regard to the documents connected with the early history of the locality. There are people who still speak of this as a proof of the intention of the English to return. How the belief became so widespread that the English placed the documents which they carried away in the Tower of London, I am unable to explain.
Memory takes me back again to the farmhouse by the Tarn. It is well that there is plenty of space, for the household is numerous. There are the farmer, his wife and children, an aged mother whose voice has become a mere thread of sound, and who thinks over the past in the chimney-corner, sometimes with a distaff in her hand; two old uncles, a youth of all work, who has been brought up as one of the family, and a little bright-eyed, bare-legged servant girl, whose brown feet I still hear pattering upon the floors. One of the old men is a white-bearded priest of eighty-five, who has spent most of his life in Algeria, and has himself come to look like the patriarchal Arab in all but the costume. He has no longer any sacerdotal work, but he has other occupation. His special duty is to look after a great flesh-coloured pig, and many a time have I seen him under the orchard trees following close at the heels of the grunting beast while reading his office. His old breviary, like his soutane, is very much the worse for wear, the leaves having been thumbed nearly to the colour of chocolate; but if he had a new one now, he would find it hard to believe that it had the same virtue as the other. Notwithstanding his years, he can do harder work than watching a pig. I have seen him haymaking and reaping, and always the merriest of the party. Before taking the fork or the sickle in hand, he would hitch up his soutane, and reveal a pair of still active sacerdotal legs in white linen drawers. The sight of the old man bending his back while reaping, his white beard brushing the golden corn, was pathetic or comic as the humour might seize the beholder. As gay as any of the cicadas that keep the summer's jubilee in the sunny tree-tops, he sings songs that have nothing in common with psalms, and he needs little provocation to dance. French has become an awkward language to him, but his tongue is nimble enough both in Languedocian and Latin. When he hears that the evening soup is ready, he hurries the pig home, flourishes his stick above his head in imitation of the Arabs, and shouts in his cheeriest voice, 'Oportet manducare!'
The other uncle's chief business is to look after a couple of cows, and as the farm has no pasturage but the orchard, he is away with them the greater part of the day along the banks of the Tarn. One evening I met him by the river, and he stopped me to quote a passage from the Georgics which he had recalled to mind. His face beamed with satisfaction. I knew that he had not been brought up to cow-tending, but was, nevertheless, taken aback when the unfortunate old bachelor wished me to share the pleasure he felt in having brought to mind a long-forgotten passage of Virgil. The surprises of real life never cease to be startling. Speaking to me afterwards of the growing extravagance of all classes, he said:
'When I was young there were only two cafes in Albi, and none but the rich ever entered them. Now every man goes to his cafe. I remember when, in middle-class families in easy circumstances, coffee was only drunk two or three times a year, on festive occasions.' Very different is the state of things now in France.
The figure of the old man bending upon his stick glides away by the dark willow-fringe of the Tarn, and I am standing alone in the solemn splendour of the luminous dusk—the clear-obscure of the quickly passing twilight, beside the bearded corn, whose gold is blended with the faint rosiness that spreads through the air of the valley, and lets free the fragrance of those flowers which keep all their sweetness for the evening. There is still a gleam of the lost sun upon the priory walls, and over the dark rocks and wooded hollows floats a purple haze. The dusk gathers apace, and the poplars that rise far above the willows along the river, their outlines shaded away into the black forest behind them, stand motionless like phantom trees, for not a leaf stirs; but the corn seems to grow more luminous, as if it had drunk something of the fire as well as the colour of the sun, while the horns of the sinking moon gleam silver-bright just over the topmost trees, painted in sepia upon a cobalt sky. How weird, phantasmal, enigmatic the forms of those trees now appear! Some like hell-hags, with wild hair flying, are rushing through the air; others, majestic, solitary, wrapped about with dark horror, are the trees of Fate; some have their arms raised in the frenzy of a torturing passion; others look like emblems of Care when hope and passion are alike dead: each touches the spring of a sombre thought or a fantastic fancy.