The valley now widened out, and a village came into view, together with a ruined castle upon a mamelon, that rose like a volcanic cone from the plain. On the castle wall an immense wooden cross had been set, showing against the sky with an effect truly grand. The village was Vers, and the castle, which was built by the English, is called the Chateau de Bears.
At Vers I was met by an old man, who insisted upon showing me another cave fortified by the English, after taking the precaution of telling me that he would accept nothing for his trouble. He was long and lean and brown, and had a 'glittering, eye' like the Ancient Mariner, but his conversation was much more cheerful than that of the hero who shot the albatross. He was a born actor, for he accompanied his talk with magnificent dramatic gestures, and, after letting his voice drop suddenly to a tragic whisper, he would raise it again to the most gusty and blustering heights of sound. He was a strong type of the Southerner, inasmuch as all this amazing vehemence and gesticulation was quite uncalled for. It is remarkable, however, how much may be done by mere action and intonation to impress the listener with the idea that the speaker must be a person of uncommon intelligence. But when half a dozen such talkers are engaged in discussion upon some trivial topic, and each employs the same means to enforce his views upon the rest (this occurs nightly in the cafes at Cahors), the Northerner is inclined to think that they are all mad. The wiry old man explained to me, in order to account for the ease and agility with which, notwithstanding his years and his awkward sabots, he stepped from block to block in the ascent, that he had been all his life a rock-blaster. At length we reached the cavern. The English, who used it as a refuge, had shown much sagacity in its selection, for the enemy that attacked them there would have been compelled to climb up the face of the rock beneath by following zigzag ledges, while the besieged behind their loopholed wall were raining arrows and bolts upon them. The wall, as it exists, is twenty or thirty feet high. There is a doorway protected by an inner wall. To reach the upper loopholes and parapet the men mounted upon oak beams resting crosswise between the masonry and the rock. One massive beam, crumbling and worm-eaten, as may be supposed after the centuries that it has been there, may still be seen serving as the lintel of a window.
I made a rather long stay at Vers, in order to visit the site of a Celtic town on the causse; but I did not start upon this journey until the next day. The inn where I put up was much more comfortable than some others which I had chosen for night-quarters while wandering down the valley. To anybody fresh from London it would have seemed primitive indeed, with its broad hearth and massive iron dogs, its enormous fire built with logs and the roots of trees, and its cosy chimney-corners, where the sitters' heads were from time to time enveloped with wreathing smoke; but I had grown so accustomed to such sights that this hostelry seemed to contain all the blessings and commodities of an advanced state of civilization.
The hostess was a good and sprightly cook, and I watched her proceedings with a keen interest as I sat upon one of the seats in the chimney. Having hitched the pot that contained the soup upon the hook at the end of the sooty chain, she raked out embers from the centre of the burning mass, and made separate fires with them upon the hearth. Others she carried to a range of small charcoal fireplaces on one side of the spacious kitchen, and very soon afterwards she had sauce-pans and a frying-pan and a gridiron all murmuring or hissing together. There was too much garlic in her cookery, but I had also grown used to that. Although the phylloxera had blighted nearly all the vineyards in this region, the landlord here was able to put upon the table some wine, grown upon his own hillside, not unworthy of the ancient reputation of the Cahors district for its vintage.
After dinner I returned to the chimney-corner which was decidedly the most comfortable place in the inn, in spite of the smoke and the close neighbourhood of soot, and set about obtaining information from the aubergiste and his cronies who had dropped in concerning the exact whereabouts of a Celtic town whose ruined fortifications, I knew, were to be found somewhere among the barren hills to the west of Vers. It was some time before I could make these men understand what I was really in search of, and when they understood they seemed to think I was a little mad, until the idea struck them that I might be a dealer in antiquities, hoping to pick up certain odds and ends that would repay me for the trouble of walking to such a desolate and uninteresting spot.
At length I gathered that the site of the ancient oppidum was at Murcens, a hamlet upon a hill, half a day's walk away to the west, and that the best way to reach it was to follow the valley of the Vers. At about seven o'clock the next morning I started, and, having been warned that I should find no inn where I could get a meal, I took with me some provisions.
It was a gray, dreary morning, and at that hour the weather could not have been more November-like had I been upon the banks of the Severn or the Trent, instead of being by one of the rivers of our ancient southern province of Guyenne.
As I turned westward up the valley of the Vers, I passed under detached fragments of the aqueduct built by the Romans to carry water to Cahors. By taking advantage of the rocks which hem in the narrow valley, they saved themselves the trouble of raising arches to the desired height to ensure the flow. The conduit is carried along upon a ledge hewn out of the natural wall, projecting masses of rock being cut through with the hammer and chisel. The masonry is of undressed stone, but so firmly cemented that it is scarcely less solid than the rock itself.
Where an inconvenient buttress projected, a narrow passage was cut through it for the channel, and the marks of the chisel look as fresh as if they had been lately made. Much of this aqueduct was destroyed in quite recent days, when the rocks were blasted to make room for the road to Cahors. The Romans may have thought of many destructive agencies being employed upon their work, but dynamite was certainly not one of them. Box and hellebore, bramble and dogwood, moss and ferns, have been striving for centuries to conceal all trace of the conduit, and those whose foreknowledge did not lead them to look for it might easily pass by without observing it.
The road followed the stream, now a furious torrent that a man on horseback could hardly ford without risk of being carried away. Two or three weeks previously a mere thread of water wound its way amongst the stones in the centre of the channel. It is one of the many streams which in Guyenne gradually disappear in summer, but at the return of winter fill the long-scorched and silent valleys with the sound of roaring waters. On either side of the gorge rose abrupt stony hills thinly wooded, chiefly with stunted oak, or escarped craggy cliffs pierced with yawning caverns. There was no sunshine, but the multitude of lingering leaves lit up all the desert hills with a quiet, solemn flame. Here and there, amidst the pale gold of the maple or the browner, ruddier gold of the oak, glowed darkly the deep crimson fire of a solitary cornel. In steady, unchanging contrast with these colours was the sombre green of the box.
The stream descends in a series of cascades, and there is a mighty roar of waters. For many yards I have for a companion a little wren, that flies from twig to twig through the well-nigh naked hedge along the wayside, now hidden behind a bramble's crimson-spotted leaf, now mingled with a tracery of twigs and thorns. I can almost believe it to be the same wren that kept up with me years ago in English lanes, and since then has travelled with me so many miles in France, vanishing for long periods, but reappearing as if by enchantment in some roadside hedge, its eyes bright with recognition, and every movement friendly. Whimsical little bird, or gentle spirit in disguise, we may travel many a mile together yet.
My thoughts were turned from the wren by a carrier's cart, which the people of the country would term a diligence. It was like a great oblong box with one end knocked out, set on wheels. The interior was a black hole, crammed with people and bundles. When I looked for my little feathered friend it was gone, but we shall meet again.
Two or three miles farther up the valley, near a small village or hamlet, I crossed a low bridge over the Vers, and by following the road on the other side, still ascending the course of the stream, I came to a spot where a volume of water that would soon have filled a large reservoir flowed quietly out of a little hollow at the foot of great rocks. It was the Fountain of Polemie which, on account of its abundant flow in all seasons, is supposed to have been the source from which the Romans led their aqueduct to Divona—now called Cahors. The water of this fountain, which derives its name from Polemius, a Roman functionary, is of limpid purity, and its constancy proves that it rises from a great depth. The Romans must have carried the water on arches across the valley, and probably for a considerable distance down it, before they made use of the natural wall of rock in the manner described, but not a trace remains of the arches, or even of the piers.
In order to reach the tableland of Murcens, it was necessary to cross again the roaring torrent of the Vers, and after several vain attempts to do so, by means of the rocks lying in its bed, I came to a bridge which solved the difficulty. The scene was now sublimely rugged and desolate. On each side the majestic rocks reared their ever-varying fantastic shapes towards the sky.
I knew, from what I had been told, that Murcens lay somewhere above the escarped cliff on my left, and at no great distance, but the difficulty was to reach it. I had heard of a path, but I soon gave up the attempt to find it. As there was not a human being to be seen who could give me any counsel, I commenced climbing the hill in the direction that I wished to take. It was anything but straightforward walking. The lower part of the steep was strewn with loose stones like shingle, that slipped under the feet, so that I had to proceed in zigzag fashion, taking advantage of every bush of juniper and box and root of hellebore as a foothold. But the vegetation grew denser as I ascended, and I had soon plenty of box and dwarf oak to help me.
Before attempting to climb the upper wall of solid limestone, I sat in the mouth of a small cavern to eat the frugal lunch I had brought with me, and to contemplate at my leisure the wild grandeur of the valley. I could not have chosen a better place for feeling in one sense dwindled, in another expanded, by the majesty of the stony solitude. Suddenly, while I gazed, the sun breaking through the clouds made every yellow tree brighten like melting gold, and drew a voice of joy from all the dumb and solemn rocks.
I leave the remnants of my feast for the foxes and magpies to quarrel over, and feel prepared to put forth a vigorous effort to reach the causse. I work my way up by the clefts of the rocks, hanging on to the tough box, and getting thoroughly asperged by the dew that has not yet dried upon it. I have not ascended fifty feet in this manner before I am as wet as if I had been walking in a thunderstorm. I creep along ledges, now to the right and now to the left, and presently I am only about twenty-five feet from the top of the rock that prevents me from attaining my object. It is pleasanter to look up than to look down, for, being no climber of mountain peaks, I do not enjoy the sensation of clinging to the side of a precipice like a caterpillar to a leaf. Now comes the real trial. The rest of the rock above me is quite bare of vegetation. By making four or five steps upwards to the left, then to the right, a spot can be reached where the trouble will be over; but some of these steps need a considerable stretch of leg, and the eye cannot measure the distance with certainty. Time is on the wing, and the days are short. I am strongly tempted to make the essay, but doubt holds me back. What if I, were to get half-way, and were unable to go on or to retreat? What if I were to slip and roll down the rocks? If I were not killed outright, who would be likely to come to my aid in such a solitude? The ravens would have ample time to pick my bones before those interested in my existence would know what had happened to me. I resolve that I will not give the birds of ill omen a chance of so rare a meal. In descending, the cold showers from the box bushes add to my humiliation and discomfiture.
Keeping on the side of the hill, I went farther up the valley, seeking a place where I could with better chance of success make another attack upon the difficulties of this rocky wall. I found what I wanted at no great distance, the only objection to the spot being the dense growth of shrubs laden with moisture. It was almost like wading through a stream. At length the line of high rocks was passed, and I was upon land that, notwithstanding its steepness and the multitude of stones with which it was strewn, had undergone some cultivation. That wine had not long since been grown here was evident from the numerous stumps of vines which had been killed by the phylloxera. A few lingering flowers of hawkweed relieved the monotony of the dreary waste. But if, while looking before me, the scene was saddening, in looking back there was a sublime and soul-lifting picture which the forces of Nature had been painting unmolested for ages. I can do no more than suggest to the imagination the combined effect of those fantastic rocks rising from the foaming torrent to the drifting, tinted clouds; buttresses and bastions of the ancient earth laid bare in the mysterious night of the inconceivable past, some black and gloomy as the walls of a feudal moat, others yellow like ochre; others, again, sun-bleached almost to whiteness, yet streaked with ruddy veins—all flashed here and there with burning oak and maple, or sprinkled with the purple blood of the dogwood's dying leaves.
Half an hour later I reached Murcens, only inhabited nowadays by a few peasants in two or three scattered hovels, which are nevertheless called farms. I had no difficulty in finding the wall of the Gaulish town. It is broken down completely in places, but the almost circular line is plainly marked. The site of the oppidum is a little tableland raised above the surrounding soil by a natural embankment.
The circumvallation in its best preserved places is now from seven to ten feet high. The materials used were such as Caesar mentions as having been employed by the Gauls in the fortification of their oppida, namely, timber and rough stone. I looked for some traces of the wooden uprights, but although there is ample proof that they existed there down to our own time, my search was vain. Many stones measuring several feet in length were set in a perpendicular position to give extra stability to the wall. The ancient rampart is in places completely overgrown with juniper. Within the wall is nothing but level field. No trace remains of any buildings that stood there in the far-off days when the spot was the scene of all passions and vanities, the tragedy and comedy of human life, even as we know it now. The peasant as he ploughs or digs turns up from time to time a bit of worked metal, such as a coin, or a ring, but the hands which held them may or may not be mingled with the soil that supports the buckwheat and enables the peasant to live. The Gaulish city has no history.
I had some talk with a peasant who had been watching my movements wonderingly. He spoke French with difficulty, but his boy—a lad of about twelve, who had been to school—could help him over the stiles. I got the man to speak about the ancient wall, although it was evidently not a subject that interested him so deeply as his pigsty. He told me that all the beams of wood had now rotted (they may have helped to warm him on winter evenings), but that nails a foot long were often found amongst the stones of the wall or in the soil round about it. He had picked up several, but had taken no care of them. When I observed that I should much like to see one, he said he thought there was one somewhere in his house, and, calling to his wife, he asked her in Languedocian to look for it. While she was searching he drew my attention to a circular stone lying upon the top of his rough garden wall. It was about a foot in diameter, and concave on one side. 'What is it?' I asked.
'A millstone,' he replied.
True enough, it was one of the stones of an ancient handmill, such as was used in remote antiquity, chiefly by women, for grinding corn. It must have been as nearly as possible after the pattern of the first implement invented by man for this purpose. The peasant set no value upon it; I could have had it for a trifle—even for nothing, had I been so minded; but whatever liking I may have for antiquities, it did not gird me up to the task of carrying a millstone back to Vers. The nail could not be found, so I was obliged to leave without a souvenir of the Celtic city. Not far from this spot I found another millstone that would have fitted the one I had left and made a complete mill. They are doubtless still lying upon the dreary height of Murcens; but whether they are there or in a museum, they are as dumb as any other stones, although, had they the power to repeat some of the gossip of the women who once bent over them, they might tell us a good deal that Caesar left out of his Commentaries because he thought it unimportant, but which we should much like to know.
I did not return by the way I came, but kept upon the plateau, going southward, then, dropping down into another valley at the bottom of which ran a tributary of the Vers, I crossed the stream and rose upon the opposite hill, making somewhat at random towards the village of Cours. On my way I started numerous coveys of red partridges from juniper and box and other low shrubs. Had I been a sportsman carrying a gun I could have made a splendid 'bag,' but these chances generally fall to those who cannot profit by them. I wondered, however, at the lack of poaching enterprise in a district so near to Cahors. It is not often that one meets even in the least populous parts of France so many partridges in an absolutely wild state. Immense flocks of larks were likewise feeding upon the moorland, and the beating of their countless wings as they rose made a mighty sound when it suddenly broke the silence of the hills. I met a small peasant girl with a face as dark as a Moorish child's, and eyes wonderfully large and lustrous. She was a beautiful little creature of a far Southern or Arabian type. At Cours I talked to a woman who was a pure type of the red-haired Celt. How strange it is that with all the intermixture of blood in the course of many centuries the old racial characteristics return when they are deeply ingrained in a people!
I took shelter at Cours from a sharp storm. It was a wretched little village upon a dreary height, and the inhabitants, to whom French was a foreign language, stared at me as if I had been a gorilla. An overhanging 'bush' of juniper led me to a very small inn that bore the familiar signs of antiquity, dirt and poverty. I knocked at the old oak door studded with nail-heads, and it presently creaked upon its rusty hinges. It was opened by a poor woman whose manners were wofully uncouth; but this was no fault of hers. She was honest, as such rough people generally are. Although she must have wanted money, it did not occur to her to extract a sou from the stranger beyond the just price. When I had had enough of her wine and bread and cheese, and asked her to tell me what I owed her, she carefully measured with her eye how much wine was left in the bottle, how much bread and cheese I had taken, and when her severe calculation was finished she replied, in a harsh, firm voice, which meant that the reckoning being made she intended to stand by it: 'Eleven sous.'
When I met the valley of the Vers again the storm had passed far away; the evening rose was in the calm heaven, and the topmost oaks along the rocky ridge burnt like tapers upon a high altar of the vast temple whose roof is the vaulted sky. Already the deep aisles were dim with gathering shadows. When I reached the inn at Vers it was nearly dark, and after my day's tramp I was very glad to exchange the outer gloom for the brightness of the cheery fireside and the warmth of the chimney-corner beside the redly glowing logs.
The next day brought me to the end of my long journey down the valley of the Lot, for I had decided to leave the country below Cahors until some future day. I reached the city of Divona when the yellow glow of the autumnal rainy sunset was stealing up the ancient walls.
It is always with a certain dread that I say anything about history, because when I am once upon such high stilts I do not know when I shall be able to get down again. Moreover, when one is so mounted, one has to step very judiciously, especially in a region like this, where the roads to knowledge are so roughly paved. Nothing would be easier, however, than to fill a book with the history of Cahors, for the place, since the days of the Romans, has gone through such vicissitudes, and witnessed such stirring events, that those who wish to turn over the leaves of its past have abundant facilities for doing so; but it will be better for me to speak rather of what I have seen than what I have read. Nevertheless, my impressions of this old town at the present day would be like salad without salt if no flavour of the past were put into them.
When, a mud-bespattered tramp, I came down the road by the winding Lot, and saw the pale golden light rising upon the walls of churches and towers high above me, I could not but think of some of the terrible scenes which, in the course of 2,000 years, were witnessed by the inhabitants of Cahors. In the fast-falling twilight I saw the ghosts of the Vandals and Visigoths who helped to destroy the works of the Caesars, and passed onward to the unknown; of the Franks who burnt Cahors in the sixth century; of the Arab hordes, dabbled with blood, who afterwards came up from the South slaying, violating, plundering; of the English troops under Henry II. besieging and taking the town, accompanied by the Chancellor, Thomas-a-Becket; of the Albigenses and Catholics, who cut one another's throats for the good of their souls; of the Huguenots and Catholics, who repeated these horrors in the sixteenth century for the same excellent reason; but of all these shadows, the most interesting and the most dramatic was that of Henry IV. He was then Henry of Navarre, and the hope of the Protestants in the South, while Cahors was one of the strongholds of Catholicism. What a feat of war was that capture of Cahors by Henry with only 1,400 men, after almost incessant fighting in the streets for five days and nights! How red the paving-stones must have been on the sixth day, when it was all over, and the surviving Navarrese, smarting from the recollection of the tiles and stones that were hurled at them from the roofs by women, children, and old men, had given the final draught of blood to their vengeful swords! Never was so much courage so uselessly squandered. After the lapse of three centuries Henry's figure is still full of heroic life, as, with back set against a shop-window, and sword in hand, he shouted to those who urged upon him the hopelessness of his enterprise: 'My retreat from this town will be that of my soul from my body!'
If is really wonderful how certain buildings at Cahors have been preserved to the present day through all the storms of the tempestuous Middle Ages, the furious hurricane of religious hatred that brought those centuries to a close, and that other one, the Revolution, which ushered in the new epoch of liberty and well-dressed poverty. Of these buildings, the cathedral has the right to be named first. As a whole it cannot be called a beautiful structure, for its form is graceless; but what a charm there is in its details! Even its incongruity has a singular fascination. This most evident incongruity arises from the combination that it expresses of the Gothic and Byzantine styles. The facade is very early Gothic (about the year 1200), still full of Romanesque feeling, but the church having been much pulled about in the thirteenth century, it came to have a semi-Byzantine choir and two depressed domes, quite Byzantine, over the nave. The facade, with its squat towers, exhibits no lofty aim, but when one looks at the tabernacle-work in the tympan of the divided portal, the capitals in the jambs and the mouldings of the archivolts, the elegant arcade above and the tracery of the great rose window, one feels that although the Pointed style could not yet embody its dream of beauty by means of the tower and spire, it was moving towards it through a maze of glorious ideas destined to become inseparable from the spirit of the perfect whole. Still more interesting than this facade is that of the north portal (twelfth century). It is Gothic, but the general treatment has much of that Byzantine-Romanesque which produced some very remarkable buildings in Southern France. The portal is very wide and deeply recessed, and the tympan is crowded with bas-reliefs, the sculpture of which, rude yet expressive, is of a striking originality. There is a broad arabesque moulding in the doorway suggesting Eastern influence, and the closed arcade of the facade, with corbel-table above and its row of uncouth monstrous heads, presents a highly curious effect of struggling motives in early Gothic art.
The nave is much below the level of the soil, and is reached by a flight of steps from the main entrance. These steps at the Sunday services are crowded by the poorer class of churchgoers, sitting, kneeling, and standing, and, like the catechumens in the narthex of the early Christian basilica, they look as if they were separated from the rest of the faithful on account of their not being as yet full-fledged members of the Church. It may well be that they are the most faithful of the faithful, for stone is a hard thing to kneel upon, and when it is used for this purpose without ostentation, it is a pretty safe test of sincerity in religion. The grouping of the people here would interest at once an artistic eye, the more so because many of the women of Cahors wear upon their heads kerchiefs of brilliant-coloured silk folded in a peculiarly graceful and picturesque manner, resembling the Bordelaise coiffure, but yet distinct.
The nave of the cathedral is cold and tasteless, the whole effect being centred upon the choir, the richness of which is quite dazzling. The vault is a semi-dome, and the apse-like polygonal termination is pierced with several lofty Gothic windows, so that the eye rests upon the harmonious lines of the tracery and a subdued blaze of many-coloured glass. Then the columns, walls and vaulting of the choir are elaborately decorated in the Byzantine style, and, all the tones being kept in aesthetic harmony, the result is a general effect more beautiful than gorgeous. I observed it under most favoured circumstances. I entered the church for the first time during the pontifical High Mass. The vestments of the mitred bishop under his canopy, of the officiating priest and deacons, of the canons in their stalls, together with the white surplices and scarlet cassocks of the many choir-boys distributed over the vast sanctuary, and the sunbeams stained with the hues of purple, crimson, azure and green by the windows that reached towards the sky, falling upon all these figures, realized with a splendour more Oriental than Western a grand conception of colour in relation to a religious ideal.
After leaving the cathedral I changed my ideas by looking for the Gambetta grocery. It happened to be close by. The name is still over the door, but the shop no longer looks democratic. Its plateglass, its fresh paint and gilding, and the specimens of ceramic art which fill the window, give it somewhat the air of one of those London shops kept by ladies of title. Sugar, coffee, and candles now hide themselves in the far background, as though they were ashamed of their own celebrity.
Much more interesting than this shop is the old house where Gambetta spent his childhood. His parents did not live on the premises where they carried on their business. Therefore the odour of honey and vinegar had not, after all, so much to do with the formation of the clever boy's character. I found the house down a dark passage. The rooms occupied by the Gambetta family are now those of a small restaurateur for the working class. After ascending some steps, I entered a greasy, grimy, dimly-lighted room, the floor of which had never felt water save what had been sprinkled upon it to lay the dust. It had the old-fashioned hearth and fire-dogs and gaping sooty chimney, a bare table or so for the customers, a shelf with bottles, and the ordinary furniture and utensils of the provincial kitchen. Here I had some white wine with the present occupier as a reason for being in a place that must have often resounded with the infantile screams of Leon Gambetta. I ascertained that he was not born in this house, but that he was brought to it when about three months old, and that he passed his childhood here. I was shown an adjoining room, darker, dingier, less persecuted by soap, if possible, than the other. It was here that Gambetta slept in those early years. Did he ever dream here of a great room in a palace, draped with black and silver, of a catafalque fit for a prince, of a coffin heaped with flowers?
Again I changed my ideas by crossing the Lot and searching for the Fountain of Divona, now called the Fontaine des Chartreux. The old name is Celtic, and as it charmed the Romans they preserved it. Following the river downward, I came to a spot where a great stream flowed silently and mysteriously out of a cavity at the foot of lofty rocks overgrown by herbage and low shrubs that seemed to have been left untouched by the hand of Autumn, that burns and beautifies. The water came out of the hill like a broad sheet of green glass, giving scarcely any sign of movement until it reached a low weir, where it turned to the whiteness of snow. The Romans held this beautiful fountain in high esteem, and if they had known how to raise the water to the level of the town on the opposite bank of the river, they need not have taken the trouble to carry an aqueduct some twenty miles from the valley of the Vers. Nowadays it is the Fountain of Divona that supplies Cahors with water.
Still following the river, I came to that famous bridge, the Pont Valentre, which is one of the most interesting specimens of the defensive architecture of the Middle Ages. It is probably the most curious example of a fortified bridge in existence. In addition to its embattled parapet, it is protected by three high slender towers, machicolated, crenellated, and loopholed. The archway of each spans the road over the bridge, so that an enemy who forced the portcullis of the first, and ran the gauntlet of the hot lead from the machicolations, would have to repeat the same performance twice before reaching the bank on which the town is built. This bridge was raised at the commencement of the fourteenth century. By what wonderful chance was it preserved intact, together with its towers, after the invention of gunpowder? The people of Cahors call it the Pont du Diable. When a certain stone was placed in one of the towers, the devil always pulled it out, or did so until lately.