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EDWARD HARRISON BARKER
AUTHOR OF 'WAYFARING IN FRANCE'
RICHARD BENTLEY AND SON
Publishers in Ordinary to Her Majesty the Queen
THE VALLEY OF THE OUYSSE AND ROC-AMADOUR
FROM THE ALZOU TO THE DORDOGNE
IN THE VALLEY OF THE CELE
IN THE ALBIGEOIS
ACROSS THE ROUERGUE
THE BLACK CAUSSE
THE CANON OF THE TARN
IN THE VALLEY OF THE LOT
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
A BIT OF OLD FIGEAC—Frontispiece
OAK CHIMNEY-PIECE AT THE SINECHAUSSEE (NOW HOTEL DE VILLE) OF MARTEL
THE PONT VALENTRE AT CAHORS
PORCH OF THE CATHEDRAL OF ALBI
CIGALA, THE SHOEBLACK.
WANDERINGS BY SOUTHERN WATERS
THE VALLEY OF THE OUYSSE AND ROC-AMADOUR.
From the Old-English town of Martel, in Guyenne, I turned southward towards the Dordogne. For a few miles the road lay over a barren plateau; then it skirted a desolate gorge with barely a trace of vegetation upon its naked sides, save the desert loving box clinging to the white stones. A little stream that flowed here led down into the rich valley of Creysse, blessed with abundance of fruit. Here I found the nightingales and the spring flowers that avoid the wind-blown hills. Patches of wayside took a yellow tinge from the cross-wort galium; others, conquered by ground-ivy or veronica, were purple or blue. Presently the tiled roofs of the village of Creysse were seen through the poplars and walnuts. A delightful spot for a poetical angler is this, for the Dordogne runs close by in the shadow of prodigious rocks and overhanging trees. What a noble and stately river I thought it, as the old ferryman, with white cotton nightcap on his head, punted me across! I took the greater pleasure in its breadth and grandeur here because I had seen it an infant river in the Auvergne mountains, and had watched its growth as it rushed between walls of rock and forest towards the plains.
What witchery of romance and spell-bound fancy is in the song of the Dordogne as it breaks over its shallows under high rocky cliffs and ruined castles! Everything that can charm the poet and the artist is here. The grandeur of rugged nature combines with the most enticing beauty of water and meadow, and the voices of the past echo with a sweet sadness from cliff to cliff. It is said that several of these castles were built to prevent the English from coming up the river, but this may be treated as one of the many fanciful legends respecting the British period which are repeated throughout Aquitaine.
By cutting off a curve of the Dordogne I soon came to the river-side village of Meyronne, and here I stopped for a meal at a very pleasant little inn, where to my surprise I found that I had been preceded a few days before by another Englishman, who, accompanied by a Frenchman, had come up from Bordeaux in a boat. They must have found it very hard work rowing against the rapids. The hostess here was evidently a woman who treasured her household gods, but who liked also to show them. She gave me my coffee in a china cup that looked as if it had belonged to her great-grandmother; and in the bright little room where she served my lunch was a large walnut buffet elaborately and admirably carved, bearing the date 1676.
After Meyronne my road ran for a few miles beside the broad and curving river. The forms of the great cliffs on each side were ever changing. Over a sky intensely blue sailed the fleecy April clouds before the soft west wind, and whenever the sun shone out with unveiled splendour, the rays fell with summer warmth. While the tinkling of sheep-bells from the ledges of the rocks came down to me, the passionate warble of nightingales, that could not wait for the night, must have risen from the leafy valley to the ears of the listless shepherd-boy gathering feather-grass where goats would not dare to venture, or eating his dark bread in the sun on the edge of a precipice. Time flowed gently like the river, and I was surprised to find myself at Lacave so soon. This village is near the spot where the Ouysse falls into the Dordogne. A little beyond the clustering houses, upon the edge of a high rocky promontory overlooking the Ouysse, is the castle of Belcastel, still retaining its feudal keep and outer wall. In this fortress the English are said to have kept many of their prisoners.
I now left the Dordogne and ascended the valley of the Ouysse. This stream is one of the most remarkable of the natural phenomena of France. To judge from its breadth near the mouth, one would suppose that it had flowed fifty or a hundred miles, but its entire length is less than ten miles. It is already a river when it rises out of the depths of the earth. The narrow valley that it waters is a gorge 500 or 600 feet deep through the greater part of its distance. The traveller at the bottom supposes, or is ready to suppose, that he is in some ravine of the high mountains; in reality, it is simply a fissure of the plateau that was once the bed of the sea. There is no igneous, no metamorphic rock here; nothing but limestone of the Jurassic formation. The convexities on one side of the fissure correspond with marked regularity to the concavities on the other.
For awhile I walked on the lush grass by the brimming river, where in the little creeks and bays the water-ranunculus floated its small white flowers that were to continue the race. Then I left the water and the green ribbon that followed its margin, and, taking a sheep-track, rose upon the arid steeps, where the thinly-scattered aromatic southern-wood was putting forth its dusty leaves. The bare rocks, yellow, white, and gray, towered above me; they were beneath me; they faced me across the valley; wherever I looked they were shutting me off from the outer world. No nightingales were singing here, but I heard the melancholy scream of the hawk and the harsh croak of the raven. And yet, when I looked down into the bottom of this steep desert of stones, what soft and vernal beauty was there! Over the grass of living green was spread the gold of cowslips, just as if that strip of meadow, with its gently-gliding river, had been lifted out of an English dale and dropped into the midst of the sternest scenery of Southern France.
As I went on I soon found that the stony wastes had their flowers too. It would seem as if Nature had wished to console the desert by giving to it her loveliest and most enticing blossoms. I came upon colonies of the poet's narcissus, breathing over the rocks so sweet a fragrance that it was as if a miracle had been wrought to draw it out of the earth. I walked knee-deep through blooming asphodels, beautiful and strange, but only noticed here by the wild bee. I gathered sprays of the graceful alpine-tea, densely crowded with delicate white bloom, and marvelled at the wanton splendour of the iris colouring the gray and yellow stones with its gorgeous blue.
Still following the Ouysse, I came to a spot where the valley ended in an amphitheatre formed by steep hills more than 600 feet high, and covered for the most part with dwarf oak. In the hollow under the dark cliffs was a little lake or pool forty or fifty yards from shore to shore. The water showed no sign of trouble save where it overflowed its basin on the western side, and formed the river that I had been keeping in sight for hours. The pool filled the Gouffre de St. Sauveur. Until the Ouysse finds this opening in the earth it is a subterranean river, and it must flow at a great depth, probably at the base of the calcareous formation, inasmuch as it continues to rise from the gulf the whole year, although from the month of August until the autumn rains nearly every water-course in the country is marked by a curving line of dry pebbles. The funnel-shaped hole descends vertically to the depth of about ninety feet, but there is no means of knowing how far it descends obliquely. The tourist may occasionally catch sight of a shepherd boy or girl with goats or sheep upon the bare or wooded rocks, but his feeling will be one of deep loneliness. He will see ravens and hawks about the crags, and about the river half covered in summer with floating pond-weed, watercress, and the broad leaves of the yellow lily, he will notice many a water-ouzel bobbing with white breast, water-hens gliding from bank to bank, merry bands of divers, and the brilliant blue gleam of the passing kingfisher, which here is allowed to fish in peace, like the otter.
The Gouffre de St. Sauveur has its legend. It is said that when the church of St. Sauveur, on the neighbouring hill, was in imminent danger at the time of the Revolution, the bells were thrown into the pool so that they should not fall into the hands of the enemy. Imaginative people fancy that they can sometimes hear them ringing at the bottom of the water.
After leaving the pool—now very sombre in the shadow of the wooded hill—I crossed a ridge separating me from the Gouffre de Cabouy, out of which flows a tributary of the Ouysse. Thence I reached the deep and singularly savage gorge of the Alzou, which brought me to Roc-Amadour, when the after-light of sunset was lingering rosily upon the naked crags.
* * * * *
Rocks reach far overhead, dazzlingly white where the sunbeams strike them, and below is a green line of narrow valley. A tinkling of bells comes from the stony sides of the gorge, where sheep are browsing the scant herbage and young shoots of southern-wood; and from the curving fillet of meadow, where the grass seems to grow while the eye watches it, rises the shrill little song of the stream hurrying over its yellow bed, which may be dry again to-morrow. This Alzou is no more to be depended upon than a coquette. After a period of drought, a storm that has passed away hours ago will cause it suddenly to come hissing down over the dry stones; but the next day no trace of the flow may be found save a few pools. Or it may grow to a torrent, even a river, that in its wild career scoffs at banks, and spreads devastation through the valley.
It is April, and the nightingales, the swallows, the flowers, the bees, and the kids, whose trembling voices are heard all about the rocks, tell me that the spring has come. I cannot rest in my cottage on the side of the gorge, not even on the balcony that seems to hang in the air over the depth; the sounds from the valley, especially those that the imagination hears, are too enticing.
Upon a high ledge of rock to which I have climbed, not without some unpleasant qualms, I stretch myself out upon a strip of short turf sprinkled with the flowers of the white rock-rose and bordered with candy-tuft, and try to drive out of mind the only disagreeable thought I have at this moment—that of getting down to the path, where I was safe. The worst part of climbing precipitous places is not the going up, but the coming down. Not a human being or dwelling is in sight, so that I can contemplate the wildness of the scene to my mind's content. But a very hoarse voice not far above tells me that I am not alone. A raven perched upon a jutting piece of rock, that curiously resembles some monstrous animal, is watching me, and he looks a very crafty old bird who could speak either French or English if he liked. Presently he flaps heavily off to the opposite side of the gorge, and fetches his wife. They fly over me almost within gunshot, going round and round, expressing an opinion or sentiment with an occasional croak, but apparently quite willing to make their dinner-hour suit my convenience. Do they suppose that I have really taken the trouble to climb up here to die out of the world's way and the sight of my fellow-creatures, like that very unearthly poet whose story Shelley has written? Do they think that they are going to make a hearty meal upon me this evening or to-morrow morning? I remain quite still, pleased at the thought of cheating the greedy, croaking scavengers of Nature, and hoping that they will grow bold enough to settle at length somewhere near me. But they are too suspicious; perhaps with their superior sight they note the blinking of my eyes as I look upwards at the dazzling sky, or instinct may tell them that I am not lying down after the manner of a dying animal. Their patience is more than a match for mine, and so I come down from my ledge and make my way back to my cottage before the pink blush of evening has faded from the rocks.
When the angelus has sounded from the ancient sanctuary, and all the forms of the valley are dim in the dusk, the silence is broken again by a very quiet little bell, which might be called the fairies' angelus if it did not keep ringing all through the spring and summer nights. It is like a treble note of the piano softly touched. It steals up from amongst the flags, hyacinths, and box-bushes of the neglected little garden which I call mine, terraced upon the side of the gorge just beneath the balcony. Now, from all the terraced gardens planted with fruit-trees, comes the same sound of low, clear notes, some a little higher than others, but all in the treble, feebly struck by unseen musicians. How sweetly this tinkling rises from the earth, that trembles with the bursting of seeds and the shooting of stems in the first warm nights of spring! And to think that the musicians should be toads—yes, toads—the most despised and the most unjustly treated of creatures!
This cottage is at Roc-Amadour, and before writing about the place I cannot do better than go down to the level of the stream, and look up at the amazing cluster of buildings clinging to the rocks on one side of the gorge, while the old walls are whitened by the pale brilliancy of the moon. Above the roofs of all the houses is a mass of masonry, vast and heavy, pierced by narrow Romanesque windows—a building uncouth and monstrous, like the surrounding crags. It stands upon a ledge of the cliff, partly in the hollow of the rock, which, indeed, forms its innermost wall. Higher still a great cross shows against the sky, and near to it, upon the edge of the precipice, are the ramparts of a mediaeval fortress, now combined with a modern building, which is the residence of the clergy attached to the sanctuary of Notre Dame de Roc-Amadour.
The sanctuary—it is inside the massive pile under the beetling rock, and over the roofs of the houses—explains why men in far-distant times had the strange notion of gathering together and constructing dwellings upon a spot where Nature must have offered the harshest opposition to such a project. The chosen site was not only precipitous, but lay in the midst of a calcareous desert, where no stream nor spring of water could be relied upon for six months in the year, and where the only soil that was not absolutely unproductive was covered with dense forest infested by wolves.[*] And yet, in course of time, there grew up upon these forbidding rocks, in the midst of this desert, a little town that obtained a wide celebrity, and was even fortified, as the five ruinous gateways, with towers along the line of the single street, prove even now, notwithstanding the deplorable recklessness with which the structures of the ancient burg have been degraded or demolished during the last half-century. Nothing is more certain than that the origin of Roc-Amadour, and the cause of its development, were religious. It was called into existence by pilgrims; it grew with the growth of pilgrimages, and if it were not for pilgrims at the present day half the houses now occupied would be allowed to fall into ruin. It is impossible to look at it without wonder, either in the daylight or the moonlight. It appears to have been wrenched out of the known order of human works—the result of common motives—and however often Roc-Amadour may suddenly meet the eye upon turning the gorge, the picture never fails to be surprising. It has really the air of a holy place, which many others famed for holiness have not.
[*] Robert du Mont, in his supplement to Sigibert's Chronicles, wrote, more than five hundred years ago, of Roc-Amadour: 'Est locus in Cadurcensi pago montaneis et horribile solitudine circumdatus.'
The founder of the sanctuary was a hermit, whose contemplative spirit led him to this savage and uninhabited valley, whose name, in the early Christian ages, was Vallis tenebrosa, but in which Nature had fashioned numerous caverns, more or less tempting to an anchorite. He is called Amator—Amator rupis—by the Latin chroniclers—a name that, with the spread of the Romance language, would easily have become corrupted to Amadour by the people. According to the legend, however, which for an uncertain number of centuries has obtained general credence in the Quercy and the Bas-Limousin, and which in these days is much upheld by the clergy, although a learned Jesuit—the Pere Caillau—who sifted all the annals relating to Roc-Amadour felt compelled to treat it as a pious invention, the hermit Amator or Amadour was no other than Zaccheus, who climbed into the sycamore. The legend further says that he was the husband of St. Veronica, and that, after the crucifixion, they left the Holy Land in a vessel which eventually landed them on the western coast of Gaul, not far from the present city of Bordeaux. They became associated with the mission of St. Martial, the first Bishop of Limoges, and at a later period Zaccheus, hearing of a rocky solitude in Aquitania, a little to the south of the Dordogne, abandoned to wild beasts, proceeded thither, and chose a cavern in the escarped side of a cliff for his hermitage. Here, meditating upon the merits of the Mother of Christ, he became one of her most devoted servants in that age, and during his life he caused a small chapel to be raised to her upon the rock near his cavern, which was consecrated by St. Martial. All this is open to controversy, but what is undoubtedly true is that one of the earliest sanctuaries of Europe associated with the name of Mary was at Roc-Amadour.
It is recorded that Roland, passing through the Quercy in the year 778 with his uncle, Charlemagne, made a point of stopping at Roc-Amadour for the purpose of 'offering to the most holy Virgin a gift of silver of the same weight as his bracmar, or sword.' After his death, if Duplex and local tradition are to be trusted, this sword was brought to Roc-Amadour, and the curved rusty blade of crushing weight which is now to be seen hanging to a wall is said to be a faithful copy of the famous Durandel, which is supposed to have been stolen by the Huguenots when they pillaged the church and burnt the remains of St. Amadour.
That in the twelfth century the fame of Roc-Amadour as a place of pilgrimage was established we have very good evidence in the fact that one of the pilgrims to the sanctuary in 1170 was Henry II. of England. He had fallen seriously ill at Mote-Gercei, and believing that he had been restored to health through the intercession of the Virgin, he set out for the 'Dark Valley' in fulfilment of a vow that he had made to her; but as this journey into the Quercy brought him very near the territory of his enemies, the annalists tell us that he was accompanied by a great multitude of infantry and cavalry, as though he were marching to battle. But he injured no one, and gave abundant alms to the poor. Thirteen years later, the King's rebellious son, Henry, Court Mantel, pillaged the sanctuary of its treasure in order to pay his ruffianly soldiers. This memorable sacrilege had much to do with the insurmountable antipathy of the Quercynois for the English.
I have before me an old and now exceedingly rare little book on Roc-Amadour, which was written by the Jesuit Odo de Gissey, and published at Tulle in 1666. In this, Court Mantel's exploit is spoken of as follows:
'Les guerres d'entre nos Rois tres Chretiens et les Anglais en ce Royaume de France guerroyant ruinerent en quelque facon Roc-Amadour; mais plus que tous Henri III., Roi d'Angleterre, ingrat des graces que son pere Henri II. y avait recues, en depit de son pere qui affectionnait cette Eglise, son avarice le poussant, pilla cet oratoire et enleva les plaques qui couvraient le corps de S. Amadour et emporta ce qui etait de la Tresorerie; mais Dieu qui ne laisse rien impuni chatia le sacrilege de cet impie Prince par une mort malheureuse. De quoi lise qui voudra Roger de Houedan, historien Anglais en la 2 partie de ses Annales.'
There are early records of miracles wrought at Roc-Amadour. Gauthier de Coinsy, a monk and poet born at Amiens in 1177, has left a poem telling how the troubadour, Pierre de Sygelard, singing the praises of the Virgin in her chapel at Roc-Amadour to the accompaniment of his vielle (hurdy-gurdy), begged of her as a miraculous sign to let one of her candles come down from her altar. According to the poem, the candle came down, and stood upon the musical instrument, to the horror and disgust of a monk who was looking on, and who saw no miracle in the matter, but wicked enchantment. He put the candle back indignantly, but when the minstrel sang and played it came down as before. The movement was repeated again before the monk would believe that the miracle was genuine. The poem, which is in the Northern dialect, and is marked throughout by a charming naivete, commences with a eulogium of the Virgin:
'La douce mere du Createur A l'eglise a Rochemadour Fait tants miracles, tants hauts faits, C'uns moultes biax livres en est faits.'
The huge, inartistic, but imposing block of masonry that appears from a little distance to be clinging, after the manner of a swallow's nest, to the precipitous face of the rock, and which is reached from below by more than 200 steps in venerable dilapidation[*], contains the church of St. Sauveur, the chapel of the Virgin, called the Miraculous Chapel, and the chapel of St. Amadour, all distinct. The last-named is a little crypt, and the Miraculous Chapel conveys the impression of being likewise one, for it is partly under the overleaning rock, the rugged surface of which, blackened by the smoke of the countless tapers which have been burnt there in the course of ages, is seen without any facing of masonry.
[*] Since the foregoing was written the old slabs have been turned round, and the steps been made to look quite new.
If by looking at certain details of this composite structure one could shut off the surroundings from the eye, the mind might feed without any hindrance upon the ideas of old piety and the fervour of souls who, when Europe was like a troubled and forlorn sea, sought the quietude and safety of these rocks, lifted far above the raging surf. But the hindrance is found on every side. The sense of artistic fitness is wounded by incongruities of architectural style, of ideas which meet but do not marry. The brazen altar, in the Miraculous Chapel was well enough at the Paris Exhibition of 1889, where it could be admired as a piece of elaborate brass work, but at Roc-Amadour it is a direct challenge to the spirit of the spot. Then again, late Gothic architecture has been grafted upon the early Romanesque. Those who restored the building after it had been reduced to a ruin by the Huguenots in 1562 set the example of bad taste. The revolutionists of 1793 having in their turn wrought their fury upon it, the work of restoration was again undertaken during the last half-century, but the opportunity of correcting the mistake of the previous renovators was lost. The piece of Romanesque architecture whose character has been best preserved is the detached chapel of St. Michael, raised like a pigeon-house against the rock; but even this has been carefully scraped on the outside to make it correspond as nearly as possible to some adjacent work of recent construction.
The ancient treasure of Roc-Amadour has been scattered or melted down, but the image of the Virgin and Child, which according to the local tradition was carved out of the trunk of a tree by St. Amadour himself, is still to be seen over the altar in the Miraculous Chapel. It is probably 800 years old, and it may be older. There is no record to help hypothesis with regard to its antiquity, for since the pilgrimage originated it appears to have been an object of veneration, and the commencement of the pilgrimage is lost in the dimness of the past. Like the statue of the Virgin at Le Puy, it is as black as ebony, but this is the effect of age, and the smoke of incense and candles. The antiquity of the image is, moreover, proved by the artistic treatment. The Child is crowned and rests upon the Virgin's knee; she does not touch him with her hands. This is in accordance with the early Christian sentiment, which dwells upon the kingship of the Child as distinguished from the later mediaeval feeling, which rests without fear upon the Virgin's maternal love and makes her clasp the Infant fondly to her breast.
The 'miraculous bell' of Roc-Amadour has not rung since 1551, but it may do so any day or night, for it is still suspended to the vault of the Miraculous Chapel. It is of iron, and was beaten into shape with the hammer—facts which, together with its form, are regarded as certain evidence of its antiquity. The first time that it is said to have rung by its own movement was in 1385, and three days afterwards, according to Odo de Gissey, the phenomenon was repeated during the celebration of the Mass. All those who were present bore testimony to the fact upon oath before the apostolic notary.
Very early in the Middle Ages the faith spread among mariners, and others exposed to the dangers of the sea, that the Lady of Roc-Amadour had great power to help them when in distress. Hugues Farsit, Canon of Laon, wrote a treatise in 1140, 'De miraculis Beatae Virginis rupis Amatoris,' wherein he speaks of her as the 'Star of the Sea,' and the hymn 'Ave maris stella' is one of those most frequently sung in these days by the pilgrims at Roc-Amadour. A statement, written and signed by a Breton pilgrim in 1534, shows how widely this particular devotion had then spread among those who trusted their lives to the uncertain sea:
'I, Louis Le Baille, merchant of the town of Pontscorf, on the river Elle, in the diocese of Vannes, declare with truth that, returning from a voyage to Scotland the 13th of the month of February, 1534, at about ten o'clock at night, we were overtaken by such a violent storm that the waves covered the vessel, in which were twenty-six persons, and we went to the bottom. During the voyage somebody said to me: "Let us recommend ourselves to God and to the Virgin Mary of Roc-Amadour. Let us put her name upon this spar and trust ourselves to the care of this good Lady." He who gave me this good counsel and myself fastened ourselves to the spar with a rope. The tempest carried us away, but in so fortunate a manner that the next day we found ourselves on the coast of Bayonne. Half dead, we landed by the grace of God and the aid of His pitiful mother, Notre Dame de Roc-Amadour. I have come here out of gratitude for this blessing, and have accomplished the journey in fulfilment of my vow to her, in proof of which, I have signed here with my hand.—Louis BAILLE.'
Such streams of pilgrims crossed the country from various directions, moving towards the sanctuary in the Haut-Quercy, that inns or 'halts' were called into existence on the principal lines of route, and lanterns were set up at night for the guidance of the wanderers. The last halt was close to Roc-Amadour, at a spot still called the Hospitalet. Here were religious, who bound up the pilgrims' bleeding feet, and provided them with food before they descended to the burg and completed the last part of their pilgrimage—the ascent of the steps—upon their knees. The sportelle, or badge of Notre Dame de Roc-Amadour, ensured the wearer against interference or ill-treatment on his journey. It is acknowledged that the English respected it even in time of war. At the Great Pardon of Roc-Amadour, in 1546, so great was the crowd of pilgrims, who had come from all parts, that many persons were suffocated. The innkeepers' tents gave the surrounding country the appearance of a vast camp. Sixteen years later, when Roc-Amadour fell into the hands of the Huguenots, and the religious buildings were pillaged and partly destroyed, the pilgrimage received a blow from which it never quite recovered. It ceased completely at the Revolution, but has since been revived, and some thousand genuine pilgrims, chiefly of the peasant class, now visit Roc-Amadour every year.
For nearly 300 years the history of the Quercy and Roc-Amadour was intimately associated with that of England. Henry II. did not at first claim the Quercy as a part of Eleanor's actual possessions in Aquitaine; but he claimed homage from the Count of Toulouse, who was then suzerain of the Count of Quercy. Homage being refused, Henry invaded the county, captured Cahors, where he left Becket with a garrison, and thence proceeded to reduce the other strongholds. Roc-Amadour appears to have offered little if any resistance. The Quercy was formally made over to the English in 1191 by the treaty signed by Philip Augustus and Richard Coeur-de-Lion; but the aged Raymond V. of Toulouse protested, and the Quercynois still more loudly. These descendants of the Cadurci found it very difficult to submit to English rule. Unlike the Gascons, who became thoroughly English during those three centuries, and were so loath to change their rulers again that they fought for the King of England to the last, the Quercynois were never reconciled to the Plantagenets, but were ever ready to seize an opportunity of rebelling against them. It is well known that Richard Coeur-de-Lion lost his life at the hand of a nobleman of the Quercy. While Guyenne was distracted by the family quarrel of the first Plantagenets, the troubadour Bertrand de Born by his gift of words so stirred up the patriotic and martial ardour of the Aquitanians that a league was formed against the English, which included Talleyrand, Count of Perigord, Guilhem (or Fortanier) de Gourdon, a powerful lord of the Quercy, De Montfort, the Viscounts of Turenne and Ventadour. These nobles swore upon the Gospels to remain united and faithful to the cause of Aquitaine; but Richard, partly by feats of war and partly by diplomacy, in which it is said the argument of money had no inconsiderable share, broke up the league, and Bertrand de Born, being abandoned, fell into the Plantagenet's hands. But he was pardoned, probably because Richard was a troubadour himself in his leisure moments, and had a fellow-feeling for all who loved the 'gai scavoir.' Meanwhile, the Lord of Gourdon was not to be gained over by fair words or bribes, and Richard besieged his castle, some ruins of which may still be seen on the rock that overhangs the little town of Gourdon in the Quercy. The fortress was taken, and Richard in his fury caused the stern old man who defended it and two of his sons to be put to death. But there was a third son, Bertrand de Gourdon, who, seeking an opportunity of avenging his father and brothers, joined the garrison of the castle of Chalus in the Limousin, which Richard soon afterwards besieged. He aimed the bolt or the arrow which brought Richard's stormy life to a close. Although forgiven by the dying Coeur-de-Lion, Bertrand was flayed alive by the Brabancons who were in the English army. He left no descendants, but his collaterals long afterwards bore the name of Richard in memory of Bertrand's vengeance.
A member of a learned society at Cahors has sought to prove that Gourdon in the Quercy is the place where the family of General Gordon of Khartoum fame had its origin. It is true that the name of this town in all old charts is spelt Gordon; but, inasmuch as it is a compound of two Celtic words meaning raven's rock, it might as feasibly have been handed down by the Gaelic Scotch as by the Cadurcians.
The Plantagenets came to be termed 'the devil's race' by the people of Guyenne. This may have originated in a saying attributed to Richard himself in Aquitaine: 'It is customary in our family for the sons to hate their father. We come from the devil, and we shall return to the devil.'
In 1368 the English, having again to reduce the Quercy, laid siege to Roc-Amadour. The burghers held out only for a short time, and the place being surrendered, Perducas d'Albret was left as governor with a garrison of Gascons. Froissart quaintly describes this brief siege. Shortly before the army showed itself in the narrow valley of the Alzou, the towns of Fons and Gavache had capitulated, the inhabitants having sworn that they would remain English ever afterwards. 'But they lied,' observes Froissart. Arriving under the walls of Roc-Amadour, which were raised upon the lower rocks, the English advanced at once to the assault. 'La eut je vous dy moult grant assaust et dur.' It lasted a whole day, with loss on both sides; but when the evening came the English entrenched themselves in the valley with the intention of renewing the assault on the morrow. That night, however, the consuls and burghers of Roc-Amadour took council of one another, and it was unanimously agreed that the English had shown great 'force and virtue' during the day. Then the wisest among them urged that the place could not hold out long against such an enemy, and that if it was taken by force they, the burghers, would be all hanged, and the town burnt without mercy. It was, therefore, decided to surrender the town the next day. This was accordingly done, and the burghers solemnly swore that they would be 'good English' ever afterwards. For their penance they undertook to send fifty mules laden with provisions to accompany the English army on its march for fifteen days. The fact that the burghers owned fifty mules in the fourteenth century shows how much richer they were then, for now they can scarcely boast half as many donkeys, although these beasts do most of the carrying, and even the ploughing.
It is difficult now to find a trace of the wall which defended the burg on the side of the valley; but here, not far above the bed of the Alzou, are some ruins of the castle where Henry II. stayed, and which the inhabitants still associate with his name. It is improbable that he built it; it is more reasonable to suppose that it existed before his marriage with Eleanor in 1152. His son, 'Short Mantle,' also used it when he came to Roc-Amadour, and behaved, as an old writer expresses it, 'like a ferocious beast.' Some ruined Gothic archways may still be seen from the valley, the upper stones yellow with rampant wallflowers in the early spring. The older inhabitants speak of the high walls, the finely-sculptured details, etc., which they remember; and, indeed, it is not very long ago that the ancient castle was sold for a paltry sum, to be used as building material. The only part of the interior preserved is what was once the chapel. It is vaulted and groined, and the old vats and casks heaped up in it show that it was long used for wine-making, before the phylloxera destroyed the vineyards that once covered the sides of the stony hills. A little below this castle is a well, with an extraordinary circumference, said to have been sunk by the English, and always called by the people 'Le puit des Anglais.' It is 100 feet deep, and those who made it had to work thirty feet through solid rock.
* * * * *
After wandering and loitering by rivers too well fed by the mountains to dry completely up like the perfidious little Alzou, I have returned to Roc-Amadour, my headquarters, the summer being far advanced. The wallflowers no longer deck the old towers and gateways with their yellow bloom, and scent the morning and evening air with their fragrance; the countless flags upon the rocky shelves no longer flaunt their splendid blue and purple, tempting the flower-gatherer to risk a broken neck; the poet's narcissus and the tall asphodel alike are gone; so are all the flowers of spring. The wild vine that clambers over the blackthorn, the maple and the hazel, all down the valley towards the Dordogne, shows here and there a crimson leaf; and the little path is fringed with high marjoram, whose blossoms revel amidst the hot stones, and seem to drink the wine of their life from the fiery sunbeams. Upon the burning banks of broken rock—gray wastes sprinkled with small spurges and tufts of the fragrant southernwood, now opening its mean little flowers—multitudes of flying grasshoppers flutter, most of them with scarlet wings, and one marvels how they can keep themselves from being baked quite dry where every stone is hot. The lizards, which spend most of their time in the grasshoppers' company, appear equally capable of resisting fire. In the bed of the Alzou a species of brassica has had time since the last flood to grow up from the seed, and to spread its dark verdure in broad patches over the dry sand and pebbles. The ravens are gone—to Auvergne, so it is said, because they do not like hot weather. The hawks are less difficult to please on the score of climate; they remain here all the year round, piercing the air with their melancholy cries.
I needed quiet for writing, and could not get it. Of all boons this is the most difficult to find in France. It can be had in Paris, where it is easy to live shut off from the world, hearing nothing save the monotonous rumble of life in the streets; but let no one talk to me about the blessed quietude of the country in France, unless it be that of the bare moor or mountain or desolate seashore. In villages there is no escape from the clatter of tongues until everybody, excepting yourself, is asleep. The houses are so built that wherever you may take refuge you are compelled to hear the conversation that is going on in any part of them. In the South the necessity of listening becomes really terrible. The men roar, and the women shriek, in their ordinary talk. A complete stranger to such ways might easily suppose that they were engaged in a wordy battle of alarming ferocity, when they are merely discussing the pig's measles, or the case of a cow that strayed into a field of lucern, and was found the next morning like a balloon. It is hard for a person who needs to be quiet at times to live with such people without giving the Recording Angel a great deal of disagreeable work.
I would not have believed that so small a place as Roc-Amadour, and such a holy one, could have been so noisy if my own experience had not informed me on this subject. Every morning at five the tailor who did duty as policeman and crier came with his drum, and, stationing himself by the town pump, which was just in front of my cottage, awoke the echoes of the gorge with a long and furious tambourinade. While the women, in answer to this signal, were coming from all directions, carrying buckets in their hands, or copper water-pots on their heads, he unchained the pump-handle. Now for the next two hours the strident cries of the exasperated pump, and the screaming gabble of many tongues, all refreshed by slumber and eager for exercise, made such a diabolic tumult and discord as to throw even the braying of the donkeys into the minor key. Of course, sleep under such circumstances would have been miraculous; but, then, no one had any right to sleep when the rocks were breaking again into flame, and the mists which filled the gorge by night were folding up their tents. I therefore accepted this noise as if it had been intended for my good, and the crowd in front of the pump was always an amusing picture of human life. It was at its best on Sunday, for then the tailor—who also did a little shaving between whiles—had put on his fine braided official coat, as well as his sword and best kepi. (On very grand days he wore his cocked hat, and was then quite irresistibly beautiful.) He had to look after the women as well as the water. The latter was precious, and it was necessary to protect it in the interest of the community. Then the pump was parsimonious, and all the women being impatient to get their allowance and go, it was needful that someone in authority should stand by to decide questions of disputed priority, and to nip quarrels in the bud which might otherwise lead to a fight. Poor man! how those women worried him every morning with their badinage, and how glad he was to chain up the pump-handle and turn the key!
But this was only the opening act of the day's comedy, or rather the lever de rideau. The little square by the old gateway, whose immediate neighbourhood lent a mediaeval charm to my cottage, was the centre of gossip and idling. I did not think of this when I pitched my tent, so to speak, in the shadow of the old masonry. Knowing full well that the noise of tongues is one of the chief torments of my life, I am always leaving it out of my calculations, and paying the same bill for my folly over and over again. But then I know also that in provincial France, unless you live in an abandoned ruin upon a rock, it is well-nigh impossible to obtain the quietude which the literary man, when he has it not, imagines to be closely allied to the peace that passeth all understanding. The square served many purposes, except mine. The women used it as a convenient place for steaming their linen. This, fashioned into the shape of a huge sugar-loaf, with a hollow centre, stood in a great open caldron upon a tripod over a wood-fire. At night the lurid flames and the grouped figures, illuminated by the glare, were picturesque; but in the daytime the charm of these gatherings was chiefly conversational. Then the children made the square their playground, or were driven into it because it was the safest place for them, and every Sunday afternoon the young men of Roc-Amadour met there to play at skittles.
In quest of peace, I was driven at first into the loft of the inn, of which the cottage was a dependency. Here the vocal music of the inhabitants was somewhat muffled, but the opportunities for studying natural history were rather excessive. A swarm of bees had established themselves in a corner where they could not be dislodged, and they had a way of crawling over the floor that kept my expectations constantly raised. The maize grown upon the small farm having been stored here from time immemorial, the rats had learnt from tradition and experience to consider this loft as their Land of Goshen. When I took up my quarters among them they were annoyed, and also puzzled. They could not understand why I remained there so long and so quiet; but at length they lost patience and gave up the riddle. Then their impudence became unbounded; they helped themselves to the maize whenever they felt disposed to do so, and stared at me with the utmost effrontery as they sat upon their haunches nibbling; they ran races under the tiles and held pitched battles upon the rafters. Talking one day to the proprietor of the house about his rats and other live stock, I tried to excite and distress him by describing the depredation that went on day and night in the loft. But it was with a calm bordering on satisfaction that he listened to my story. Then he told me that the rats ate about two sacks of maize every year.
'And you do not put it elsewhere?' 'Non pas! I leave it here for them.'
'For the rats?'
'Certainly, for the rats. If I did not give them plenty of maize they would eat a hundred francs' worth of linen in a single winter. It is an economy to feed them.'
And there were about a dozen string-tailed cats about the place that never ventured into the loft. They must have been either afraid or too lazy to attack the rats in their stronghold. A man who could accept a plague of rodents in this philosophical spirit could not be otherwise than mild in his dealings with all animals, including men. My old friend liked to let every creature live and enjoy existence. He became so fond of his pigs that it grieved him sorely to have one killed. Much domestic diplomacy had to be used before the fatal order could be wrung from him. He would have gone on fattening the beast for ever had he been allowed, soothing his conscience over the waste with the vague hope that this pig of exceptional loveliness and vigour would grow to the size of a donkey if it were permitted to take its time. He never worried his metayer over money matters, or insisted upon seeing that everything was equally divided. Notwithstanding, that he had been made to smart all his life for his trustfulness and indolent good-nature, experience had taught him nothing of this world's wisdom. No beggar, although known to be a worthless rascal, ever asked him for a piece of bread or a night's lodging in his barn without obtaining it. The old man would lock his ragged guest up for the night, and before letting him out in the morning would often carry some soup to him—stealthily, however, so as not to be observed. As he was always ready to give, and hated every harsh measure, it was to his wood that the unscrupulous went in winter, when they wanted fuel. Sometimes an informer would say to him: 'M—— So-and-so is cutting down your wood.' 'Oh, bast! le pauvre. It is cold weather!' was the reply that he would be most likely to make. His good qualities would have ruined him had not destiny with great discernment and charity nailed him to his little patrimony, where he was comparatively safe.
The bees in the loft were instructive and the rats amusing, but the fleas were neither the one nor the other—they were merely exciting. And so it came to pass that I forsook the place, and by climbing a little staircase cut in the rock, against which the house was built, reached a cavern far above the roof and found at last my ideal writing-place upon the ledge in front of it, where the mallow and the crane's-bill crept over a patch of turf. Here the voices of the noisy little world below were sufficiently toned down by distance. The noisiest creatures up here were the jackdaws, which were constantly flying in and out of the holes in the church wall that rose above me from another and wider ledge of rock. A pair of sooty-looking rock-swallows that had made their nest in the roof of the cavern were much irritated by my presence, but, like the rats, they became reconciled to it. The little martins, always trustful, never hesitated from the first to fly into the cave and drink from the dripping water. When the dusk came on, the bats, which had been hanging by their winged heels all day in dusky holes and corners, fluttered out one after another, and went zigzagging until they were lost to sight over the old stone roofs on which the moss had blackened.
A little before the bats came out was the time when to do aught else but let the sight feast upon the beauty of the rocky little world bounded by the walls of the narrow gorge would have been literally to waste the golden moments. Then it was that the naked crags, which caught the almost level rays of the setting sun, grew brighter and more brilliantly coruscating, until they seemed ready to melt from the intensity of their own heat; then this fiery golden colour would slowly fade and wane into misty purple tones, which lingered long when there was no more sun. Why did it linger? All the sky that I could see was blue, and of deepening tone. But the most wonderful sight was yet to come, when, while the valley was fast darkening, and along the banks of the Alzou's dry channel the walnut-trees stood like dark spectres of uncertain form, those rocks began to glow with fire again as if a wind had risen suddenly and had fanned their dying embers, and the luminous bloom that spread over them was not that of the earthly rose, but of the mystical rose of heaven. What I saw was the reflection of the after-glow, but the glow in the sky was hidden. Sometimes, as the rocks were fading again and a star was already glittering like steel against the dark blue, another flush arose in the dusk, and a faint redness still rested upon the high crags, when the owl flew forth with a shriek to hunt along the sides of the gorge.
One morning, as I climbed to my eyrie, I was shocked to see my oblong writing-table, which I had hoisted up there with considerable difficulty, in an attitude that my neighbour Decros's donkey endeavoured to strike in his most agitated moments—it was standing upon two legs, with the others in the air. The heavy branch of a large fig-tree that had been flourishing for many years upon the overhanging rock far above had come down upon the very spot where I was accustomed to sit, and thus the strange antics of the table were accounted for. From that day the thought of other things above, such as loose rocks, which might also have conceived an antipathy for the table, and might not be so considerate towards me as the fig-tree, weakened my attachment to my ideal writing-place, for the discovery of which I was indebted to the indefatigable tongues of the women of Roc-Amadour.
The mention of my neighbour's donkey recalls to mind an interesting religious ceremony in which that amiable but emotional beast figured with much distinction. Once every year all the animals at Roc-Amadour that are worth blessing are assembled on the plain near the Hospitalet to receive the benediction of the Church. The ceremony is called La benediction des betes. The animals are chiefly goats, sheep, donkeys, and mules. They are sprinkled with holy water, and prayers are said, so that they may increase and multiply or prosper in any other way that their owners may desire. As the meeting of the beasts took place very early in the morning, I reached the scene just as it was breaking up, and the congregation was dispersing in various directions. I met Decros coming down the hill with his donkey, and saw by the expression of his lantern jaws—he never laughed outright—that something had amused him very much.
'So you have been to the Blessing of the Beasts? said I.
'He has been,' replied the man, pointing to the ass, and not wishing to be confounded with the betes himself.
The donkey stuck his long ears forward, which meant, 'Yes, I have,' and there was a deal of humour in the expression.
'And how did he behave?'
'Beautifully; he sang the whole time. The men laughed, but the women said, "Take the beast away!" "No, I won't," said" Il chante la benediction."'
September brought the retreat, and the great pilgrimage, which lasts eight days. The first visitors to arrive were the beggars and small vendors of objets de piete. Some came in little carts, which looked as if they had been made at home out of grocers' boxes, and to which dogs were harnessed. At their approach all the Roc-Amadour dogs barked bravely, just as in the old days when the song was written of the 'beggars coming to town.' Others trudged in with their bundles upon their backs, hobbling, hungry and thirsty, but eager for the fray. Some in a larger way of business came in all sorts of vehicles, and a bazaar man arrived in a caravan of his own. Then followed the crowd of genuine pilgrims, nearly all of them peasants, humbly clad, but with money in their pockets which they were determined not to spend foolishly upon meat, drink, and lodging, for the good of their souls was uppermost in their minds, and the length of their stay would depend upon their success in making the money last. By far the greater number were women, and the many bent backs and withered faces among them were a pretty safe sign that they had not all come to implore the aid of the Virgin in that special form of domestic trouble from which so many thousands have sought relief century after century in her sanctuary of Roc-Amadour.
The plain white linen coif—very ugly, but delightfully primitive—worn by a large proportion of these peasants showed that they had crossed the Dordogne from the Bas-Limousin. Many had come all the way on foot, taking a couple of days or more for the journey, and a few had trudged over the hot roads and stony causses[*] barefoot, just like pilgrims of the Middle Ages.
[*] This Languedocian word, which has come to be generally used in describing the limestone uplands, as distinguished from the valleys and gorges of a very extensive district of Southern France, is said to be a corruption of calx.
Indeed, these people were essentially the same in all social and mental characteristics as their predecessors of five or seven centuries ago; their faith was the same, their daily habits were the same, their language was the same, and their mode of dress, as far as the women were concerned, had scarcely changed. They came down the narrow street and under the old crumbling gateways in a continuous stream, holding their rosaries in their hands, together with their baskets and bundles, and praying aloud, even before they reached the foot of the steps. Arriving there, they dropped down upon their knees, and commenced the arduous ascent, interrupted by two hundred genuflexions, during which they repeated an Ave Maria and a special invocation to Notre Dame de Roc-Amadour. Although the stranger belonging to the outer world—so different in every way from that of these simple people—with his mind coloured by particular prejudices, habits of thought, religious or philosophical reasoning, may feel out of sympathy with such pilgrims, he cannot but recognise their sincerity and the serene fulness of their faith.
Above all the pious murmuring rise the harsh voices of those who have come to sell, and who, putting no restraint upon their eagerness to get money, thrust their rosaries and medals almost in the pilgrims' faces. Beggars squatting or lying against the wall on either side of the steps exhibit the bare stump of a leg that wofully needs washing, a withered arm, or the ravages of some incurable and gnawing disease. Yet are they all terribly energetic, wailing forth prayers almost incessantly, or screaming spasmodically an appeal to charity, and adding to the dreadful din by jingling coppers in tin cups. In the immediate precincts of the church, where the hurly-burly of piety, traffic, and mendicity reaches its climax, are the vendors of candles for the chapel and of food for the pilgrims, whose diet is chiefly melon and bread. Creysse, by the Dordogne, produces melons in abundance, which are brought to Roc-Amadour by the cartload, and sold for two or three sous apiece. And to see these pilgrims devour the fragrant fruit in the month of September makes one think that if Notre Dame de Roc-Amadour were not very pitiful the consequences would be disastrous to many.
There was a humorous beggar on the steps who amused me much, for I watched him more closely than he supposed. He had something the matter with his legs—paralyzed, perhaps—but the upper part of his body was sound enough. With one hand he shook the tin cup, but the other, which held a short pipe, he kept steadfastly behind his back. Now and again he turned his face to the wall, as if to drop a tear unseen, but really to take a discreet pull at the pipe. I think he must have swallowed the smoke. Then he would face the crowd again, and repeat his doleful cry:
'De la charite! de la charite! Chretiens, n'oubliez pas le pauvre estropie! Le bon Dieu vous benira.'
After all, why should not a beggar smoke? If tobacco is a blessing, why should a man be debarred from it because his legs are paralyzed, and he is obliged to live on charity?
As one of the first thoughts of every genuine pilgrim to this ancient sanctuary is to get shrived, the chaplains, who, with their Superior, are ten in number, have something to do to listen to the story of sins that is poured into their ears almost in a continuous stream during the eight days of the retreat. The rush upon the confessionals begins at five in the morning, and goes on with little intermission all day. The penitents huddle together like sheep in a snowstorm around each confessional, so that the foremost who is telling his sins knows that there is another immediately behind him who, whenever he stops to reflect, would like to give him a nudge m the back. The peasants, whether it be that they have never cultivated the habit of whispering, or whether their zeal be such as to chase from their minds all considerations of worldly shame and human respect, say what they have to say without regard to the rows of ears behind them, and what takes place at these times is almost on a par with the public confessions of the primitive Church.
It is at night, however, during the retreat that the visitor to Roc-Amadour will see the strangest sight if he gives himself the trouble, for then the church of St. Sauveur becomes a hospice where the weary may find the sleep that refreshes and restores the faculties after the work of the day, as sung by St. Ambrose. The church is filled with pilgrims lying upon the chairs, upon the bare stones that the feet of other pilgrims have worn into hollows, sitting with their backs against the walls and piers, snoring also in the confessionals—the most comfortable quarters. Some remain awake most of the night praying silently or aloud. This is how the peasantry of the Quercy and the Limousin enter into the spirit of the September pilgrimage to Roc-Amadour. It is not because they need the money to pay for accommodation in the inns that they use the church by night as well as by day, but because they wish to go through their devotional programme thoroughly. And those who go to the inns often make one room serve for a family of three or four grown-up persons. If there vis one person who does not belong to the family, the others see no harm in admitting him or her; indeed, they think that as Christians they are almost bound to do so.
On the night following the opening of the retreat, Roc-Amadour is illuminated, and the spectacle is one that renders the grandest illuminations in Paris mean and vulgar by comparison. It is not in the costliness of the display that its splendour lies; it is in what may almost be termed the zeal with which Nature works with art towards the same end. Without the rocks and precipices the spectacle would be commonplace; but the site being what it is, the scene has a strange and wonderful charm that may be called either fairylike or heavenly, as the imagination may prefer. The artistic means employed are simple enough—paper lanterns and little lamps of coloured glass; but what an effect is produced when chains of fire have been stretched across the gorge from the summits of the rocks on either side, when the long succession of zigzags reaching up the cliff, and forming the Way of the Cross, is also marked out with fire, when the ramparts on the brink of the precipice are ablaze with coloured lamps, recalling some old poetical picture of an enchanted castle, and a little to the right, on the summit of the cliff where the Via Crucis ends at Calvary, the great wooden cross which French pilgrims carried through the streets of Jerusalem stands against the calm starlit sky like a cross of blood-red flame!
A little below the summit of the cliff, from the large cavern which has been fashioned to represent the Holy Sepulchre, there issues a brilliant light, together with the sound of many voices singing the 'Tantum ergo.' A faint odour of incense wanders here and there among the shrubs, and mingles with the fragrance of flowers upon the terraces. Presently the clergy and the pilgrims come forth, and, forming a long procession, descend the Way of the Cross; and as the burning tapers that they carry shine and flash amongst the foliage, these words, familiar to every pilgrim to Roc-Amadour, sung by hundreds of voices, may be heard afar off in the dark desolate gorge:
'Reine puissante, Mere d'Amour, Sois-nous compatissante, O Vierge d'Amadour!'
It is now the vigil of All Souls—the 'Day of the Dead.' No more pilgrims come to Roc-Amadour. A breeze would send the sapless walnut-leaves whirling through the air, but there is no breeze; Nature seems to hold her breath as she thinks of the dead whom she has gathered to her earthy breast. At sundown the people creep out of their houses silently and solemnly; they meet at the bottom of the steps, and when they are joined by the clergy and choirboys, all move slowly upward, praying for the dead and kneeling upon each step. As their forms seen sideways show against the dusky sky, they look like shadows from the ghostly world, and still more so when the rocks on the other side of the gorge brighten again, as with the blood of the pomegranate made luminous, and through the air there spreads a beautiful solemn light that is tenderly yet deeply sad, and which adds something unearthly, something that cannot be named, to the ascending figures.
As the dusk deepens to darkness the funereal glas begins to moan from St. Saviour's Church. Two bells are rung together so as to make as nearly as possible one clash of sound. At first it is a moan, but it soon becomes a strident cry with a continuous under-wail. At the Hospitalet on the hill the bell of the mortuary chapel is also tolling. It is the bell of the dead who lie there in the stony burying-ground upon the edge of the wind-blown causse, calling upon the bells of Roc-Amadour to move the living to pity for those who have left the earth.
As I return to my cottage the dim street is quite deserted, and the arch of the ruined gateway, so often resounding with the voices that come from light hearts, is now as dark and silent as a grave. For two hours the bells continue to cry in the darkness, from the church overhead and from the chapel by the tombs. I can neither read nor write, but sit brooding over the fire on the hearth, piling on wood and sending tall flames and many sparks up the chimney; for that continuous undercry of the iron tongues, 'Pray for the dead! pray for the dead!' fills the valley and seems to fill the world. No fireside feeling can be kindled; it is wasting wood to throw it upon the hearth to-night, for that doleful wail penetrates everywhere: even the demon that lurks at the bottom of Pomoyssin must shudder as he hears it. When at length the bells stop swinging and their vibrations die away, a screech-owl flies close by the open gallery of the house, which we call a balcony, and startles me with its ghostly scream.
The day comes again, fair and hopeful. I am waiting for the old truffle-hunter, with whom I made an appointment for this morning. Presently I see him coming up the bed of the stream, plodding over the yellow stones, which have been dry for four months. I recognise him by his pig, which walks by his side. They are both truffle-hunters, and have both an interest in the business, as will be seen. The man is gray and old, with a sharp prominent nose, suggestive of his chief occupation, and with a bent back—the effect, perhaps, of stooping to pull the pig's ear in the nick of time should the beast be tempted to snap up one of the savoury cryptogams. When it is added that he wears a short blouse and a low, broad-brimmed felt hat, I have described the appearance of the truffle-hunter. Now, inasmuch as the pig is about to play the most important part in the morning's work, its portrait should likewise be drawn. The animal is of a dirty-white colour, like all pigs in this part of France, and is utterly devoid of grace and elegance. It is, in fact, an extremely ugly beast, with an arched back and a very long turned-up nose; but it is four years old, and is accounted 'serious.' Like all other pigs used for truffle-hunting, it is of the female sex. The animal has been carefully educated; it wears a leather collar as a mark of distinction, and is allowed the same liberty as a dog.
We climb the rocky side of the gorge, which is hot work, for the south wind is blowing, and the sun is blazing in a blue sky. The walnuts by the line of the stream are changing colour, and the maples are already fiery; but otherwise there are few signs of autumn. On reaching the plateau we come at once to the truffle-ground. Here the soil is so thin, so stony, and withal so arid, that, were it not for the scant herbage upon which sheep and goats thrive, it would produce nothing but stunted oak, juniper, and truffles. Even the oaks only grow in patches where the rock is not close to the surface. The truffles are never found except very near these trees, or, in default of them, hazels. This is one of the mysteries of the cryptogamic kingdom, which no one has yet been able to explain. The truffle-hunters believe that it is the shade of the trees which produces the underground fruit, and the opinion is based upon experience. When an oak has been cut down, or even lopped, a spot near it that was rich in truffles year after year is soon scoffed at by the knowing pig.
Our work lies amongst the dwarf oaks, for there are no hazels here. At a sign from the old man, the pig sniffs about the roots of a little tree, then proceeds to dig with her nose, tossing up the larger stones which lie in the way as if they were feathers. The animal has smelt a truffle, and the man seizes her by the ear, for her manner is suspicious. This is the first time they have been out together since last season, and the beast has forgotten some of her education. She manages to get a truffle into her mouth; he tugs at her ear with one hand, and uses his stick upon her nose with the other. The brute screams with anger, but will not open her jaws wide enough for him to slip his stick in and hook the truffle out. The prize is swallowed, and the old man, forgetting all decorum, and only thinking of his loss, calls his companion a pig, which in France is always an insult. Our truffle-hunting to-day has opened badly, although one party thinks differently. In a few minutes, however, another truffle is found, and this time the old man delivers a whack on the nose at the right moment, and, seizing the fungus, hands it to me. Now he takes from his pocket a spike of maize, and, picking off a few grains, gives them to the pig to soothe her injured feelings, and encourage her to hunt again. This she is quite ready to do, for a pig has no amour propre. We move about in the dry open wood, keeping always near the trees, and truffle after truffle is turned up from the reddish light soil mixed with fragments of calcareous rock. The forgotten training soon comes back to our invaluable auxiliary; a mere twitch of the ear is a sufficient hint for her to retire at the right moment, and wait for the corn that is in variably given in exchange for the cryptogam. Indeed, before we leave the ground, the animal has got so well into work that when she finds a truffle she does not attempt to seize it, but points to it, and grunts for the equivalent in maize. The pig may be a correct emblem of depravity, but its intelligence is certainly of a superior order.
FROM THE ALZOU TO THE DORDOGNE.
Although the last days of May had come, the Alzou, usually dry at this time, was running with swift, strong current through the vale of Roc-Amadour. There had been so many thunderstorms that the channel was not large enough for the torrent that raced madly over its yellow pebbles. I lingered awhile in the meadow by the stream, looking at the rock-clinging sanctuary before wandering in search of the unknown up the narrow gorge.
In a garden terraced upon the lower flank of the rock, the labour of generations having combined to raise a soil there deep enough to support a few plum, almond, and other fruit trees, a figure all in black is hard at work transplanting young lettuces. It is that of a teaching Brother. He is a thin grizzled man of sixty, with an expression of melancholy benevolence in his rugged face. I have watched him sitting upon a bench with his arm round some little village urchin by his side, while the children from the outlying hamlets, sprawling upon a heap of stones in the sun, ate their mid-day meal of bread and cheese or buckwheat pancakes that their mothers had put into their baskets before they trudged off in the early morning. I have noticed by many signs that he is full of sympathy for the young peasants placed in his charge. Yet with all his kindness he is melancholy. So many years in one place, such a dull routine of duty, such a life of abnegation without the honour that sustains and encourages, such impossibility of being understood and appreciated by those for whose sake he has been breaking self upon the wheel of mortification since his youth, have made him old before the time and fixed that look of lurking sadness in his warmly human eyes.
There are few problems more profound than that of the courage with which men like him continue their self-imposed penal-servitude until they become too infirm to work and are sent to die in some refuge for aged freres. They have accepted celibacy and poverty, that they may the better devote their lives to the instruction of children. They have no sacerdotal state or ideal, no ecclesiastical nor social ambition to help them. They must be always humble; they must not even be learned, for much knowledge in their case would be considered a dangerous thing. Their minds must not rise above their work. They guide dirty little fists in the formation of pot-hooks, and when they have led the boys' intelligence up a few more steps of scholarship the end is achieved. The boy goes out into the world and refreshes his mind with new occupation; but the poor Brother remains chained to his dreary task, which is always the same and is never done.
And what are the wages in return for such a life? Food that many a workman would consider insufficiently generous for his condition, a bed to lie upon and clothes which call down upon the wearer the sarcasms of the town-bred youth. What a land of contrast is France!
There are three Brothers here, but this one, the eldest, is the head. Others come and go, but he remains. Most of his spare time is given to the garden. When the eight o'clock bell begins to swing he will leave his lettuces and soon perch himself on the little platform behind his shabby old desk in the dingy schoolroom, which even in the holidays cannot get rid of its ancient redolence of boys. The school-house, now so much like a prison, was once a mansion, and the most modern part of it is of the period which we should call in England Tudor. A Gothic doorway leads into a hall arched and groined, the inner wall being the bare rock, as is the case with most of the houses at Roc-Amadour. A gutter cut in the stone floor to carry off the drippings formed by the condensation of the air upon the cold surface shows that these half-rock dwellings have their drawbacks.
I leave Roc-Amadour and take my way up the valley. Nature has now reached all that can be attained in vernal pride and beauty here. In a little while she will have put on the careworn look of the Southern summer. Many a plant now in splendid bloom, animated by the spirit of loveliness that presides over the law of reproduction, will soon be casting its seed and bringing its brief destiny to a close. Now all is coquetry, beauty, and ravishment. The rock-hiving bees, unconscious instruments of a great purpose, are yellow with pollen and laden with honey. They find more, infinitely more, nectar than they can carry away. The days are long, and every hour is full of joy. But already the tide is at the turn. The nightingale's rapturous song has become a lazy twitter; the bird has done with courtship; it has a family in immediate prospect, if not one already screaming for food, and the musician has half lost his passion for music. It will come again next year. How swiftly all this life and colour of spring passes away! So much to be looked at and so little time!
This narrow strip of meadow that winds along the bottom of the gorge is not the single tinted green ribbon it lately was. The light of its verdure has been dimmed by the light of flowers. The grass mounts high, but not higher than the oxeye daisies, the blue racemes of stachys, the mauve-coloured heads of scabious, the bladder-campions, the yellow buttercups and goat's-beard. The oxeyes are so numberless in one long reach of meadow that a white drapery, which every breeze folds or unfolds, seems to have been cast as light as sea-foam upon the illimitable forest of stems. The white butterflies that flutter above are like flecks of foam on the wing. Elsewhere it is the blue of the stachys and the spiked veronica that rules. Deeper in the herbage other races of flowers shine in the fair groves of this grassy paradise, and every blossom, however small, is a mystery, a miracle. Here is the star of Bethlehem, wide open in the sunshine and showing so purely white amidst the green, and yonder is the purple fringe-like tuft of the weird muscari. Along the banks of the stream tall lilac-purple, stock-like flowers rise proudly above the grasses. They belong to the hesperis or dame's violet, a common wild-flower in this valley. Upon my left is the abrupt stony slope of the gorge. Between it and the meadow are shrubs of yellow jessamine starred with blossom. But the stony steep that dazzles the eyes with the sun's reflected glare has its flowers too. Nature, in her great passion for beauty, even draws it out of the disintegrated fragments of time-worn rock, whose banks would otherwise be as stark and dry as the desert sand. Lightly as flakes of snow the frail blossoms of the white rock-rose lie upon the stones. Then there are patches of candytuft running from white into pink, crimson flowers of the little crane's-bill, and spurges whose floral leaves are now losing their golden green and taking a hue of fiery brown.
An open wood, chiefly of dwarf oak, and shrubs such as the wayfaring tree, the guelder-rose, and the fly-honeysuckle, now stretches along the opposite side of the gorge. Here scattered groups of columbine send forth a glow of dark blue from the shadowy places; the lily of the valley and its graceful ever-bowing cousin, the Solomon's seal, show their chaste and wax-like flowers amidst the cool green of their fresh leaves; and the monkey-orchis stands above the green moss and the creeping geraniums like a little rocket of pale purple fire just springing from the earth towards the lingering shreds of storm-cloud that are melting in the warm sky.
In a few weeks what will have become of all this greenness and beautiful colour of flowers? The torrid sun and the hot breath of summer will have burnt up the fair garment of spring, and laid bare the arid sternness of the South again. The nightingale still warbles fitfully in the green bushes, but the raven, perched up yonder upon the stark rock, croaks like a misanthrope at the quick passing away of youth and loveliness. What sad undertones, mournful murmurs of the deep that receives the drifted leaves, mingle with the spring's soft flutings and all the voices that proclaim the season of joy!
While listening and day-dreaming, I was overtaken by a man and his donkey, both old acquaintances. Every day, except Sundays and the great Church festivals, when the peasants of the Quercy abstain from work, like those of Brittany, this pair were in the habit of trudging together side by side to fetch and bring back wood from the slopes of the gorge. The ass did all the carrying, and his master the chopping and sawing. It was a monotonous life, but both seemed to think they were not worse off than the majority of men and donkeys. The man was contented with his daily soup of bread-and-water, with an onion or a leek thrown in, and a suspicion of bacon, and the beast with such herbage as he could find while his master was getting ready another load of wood. The man was an old soldier, who had seen some rough service, for he was at Sedan, and was afterwards engaged in the ghastly business of shooting down his own countrymen in Paris. But, with all this, he was as quiet a tempered creature as his donkey, which he treated as a friend. The army, he told me, was the best school for learning how to treat a beast with proper consideration.
I asked why.
'Because,' replied he, 'when a soldier is caught beating a horse, he has eight days of salle de police.'
Man and donkey having disappeared into a wood, my next companion was a small blue butterfly that kept a few yards in front of me, now stopping to look at a flower, now fluttering on again. Some insects, as well as certain birds, appear to derive much entertainment from watching the movements of that fantastic animal—man.
Arcadian leafiness: rocky desolation befitting the mouth of hell. Grass and flowers on which souls might tread in the paradise of the Florentine poet. Stony forms, monstrous, enigmatic, reared like symbolic tokens of defeated gods, or of the worn-out evil passions that troubled old creation before the coming of man, and the fresh order of spiritual and carnal bewilderment. Why should I go on and seek further amazement, while from the lowest to the highest I can read not one of the mystic figures of the solitude around me? What is my relation to them, and theirs to me? Why should that beetle in the grass, upon whose back all the colours of the prism change and glow like supernatural fire, trouble me with the cause and motive of its beauty? Why should yonder rock, standing like a spar of some ship wrecked in a cataclysm of the awful past, draw me to it as though it were the image of a grand, yet unattainable and blighted, longing of the human soul?
The gorge became so narrow and the rocks so high that there was a twilight under the trees, which still dripped with the rain-drops of last night's storm. Hesperis, columbine, and geranium contrasted their floral colours with the deep green of the young grass. Some spots of dark purple were on the ground where the light was most dim. They were the petals and calyxes of that strange flower, lathraea, of the broom-rape family. Each bloom seemed to be carried in the cup of another flower. The plant had no leaves, for it was a thief that drew its nutriment from the root of an honest little tree that had struggled upward in the shade of strong and greedy rivals, and had raised its head at length into the sunshine in spite of them.
After some difficulty in working round and over rocks that barred, the passage, I came to a spot where it was impossible to follow the gorge any farther. The walls narrowed to an opening a few yards wide, where the stream fell in a cascade of some thirty feet. I took my mid-day meal like a forester in the midst of this beautiful desolation, and then, having found a spot where I could escape from the gorge of the Alzou, I climbed the steep towards the north.
Here there was a blinding glare of sunshine reflected by the naked stones. Goats looked down at me from the upper rocks near the line of the blue sky. When I reached the boy who tended them, I asked him the way to the road that I wished to strike upon the plateau. After staring at me for some time, he screwed up his mouth, and said: 'Je comprenais pas francais, you.' You did not apply to me, but to himself, for it means I in the Southern dialect.
Here was a boy unable to speak French, although all children in France are now supposed to be educated in the official language of the republic. Such cases are uncommon. In the Haut-Quercy, where patois is the language of everybody, even in the towns, one soon learns the advantage of asking the young for the information that one may need.
I found the road I wanted, and also the spot marked on the map as the Saut de la Pucelle. It is one of those numerous gouffres to be found in the Quercy, especially in the district of the Dordogne.
Here a stream plunges beneath the surface of the earth to join the subterranean Ouysse, or the Dordogne. A ravine, sinking rapidly, becomes a deep, dark, and gloomy gully, at the end of which is a wall of rock. The stream pours down a tunnel-like passage, at the base of the rock, with a melancholy wail. Where the sides are not too steep they are covered with trees and shrubs.
As I stood amidst the poisonous dog-mercury, under the hanging ivy and the hart's-tongue ferns, watching the stream glitter on the edge of everlasting darkness, and listening to its death-dirge, I pictured awful shadows issuing from the infernal passage and seizing the terror-stricken ghost of the guilty horseman, of whom I had heard from a local legend.
This legend, as it is commonly told, is briefly as follows: Centuries ago a virtuous young woman was persecuted by the lord of a neighbouring castle, who was not at all virtuous. One day, when she was mounted upon a mule, he gave chase to her on horseback. He was rapidly gaining upon her, and she, in agony of soul, had given herself up for lost, when, by one of those miracles which were frequent in those days, especially in the country of Notre Dame de Roc-Amadour, the mule, by giving a vigorous stamp with one of his hind-legs, kicked a yawning gulf in the earth, which he, however, lightly passed over with his burden, while the wicked pursuer, unable to check his steed in time, perished in the abyss.
Another legend of the Maiden's Leap is more romantic, but less supernatural. It is a story of the English occupation of Guyenne, and the revolt of the Quercynois in 1368. Before the main body of the British force that subdued Roc-Amadour as related by Froissart arrived in the Haut-Quercy, the castle of Prangeres, near Gramat, was entered by a troop of armed men in the English service under Jehan Pehautier, one of those brigand captains of whom the mediaeval history and legends of Guyenne speak only too eloquently. An orphan, Bertheline de Castelnau, chatelaine of Prangeres in her own right, was in the fortress when it was thus taken by surprise. Captivated by her beauty, Jehan Pehautier essayed to make Bertheline his prisoner; but she made her escape from the castle by night, and endeavoured to reach the sanctuary of Roc-Amadour on foot. Her flight was discovered, and Pehautier and a party of horsemen started in pursuit. She would have been quickly captured had she not met a mounted knight, who was no other than her lover, Bertrand de Terride. She sprang upon his horse, and away they both went through the oak forest which then covered the greater part of the causse; but the gleam of the knight's armour in the moonlight kept the pursuers constantly upon his track. Slowly but surely they gained upon the fugitives. Suddenly Bertheline, who knew the country, perceived that Bertrand was spurring his horse directly towards the precipice now called the Saut de la Pucelle. It was too late, however, to avoid the gulf; she had only time to murmur a brief prayer before the horse bounded over the edge of the rock. To the great wonder and joy of the lovers, the animal cleared the ravine, and alighted safely on the other side. But a very different fate awaited the pursuers. On they came, crashing through the wood, shouting exultantly, for they believed that the prey was now almost in their grasp, when suddenly the air was rent with cries of horror, mingled with the sound of crashing armour, and bodies falling upon the rocks and upon the bed of the stream. An awful silence followed. The dead men and horses were lying in the dark water. As Pehautier felt the solid earth leave him, he gave out his favourite oath, 'Mort de sang!' in a frightful shriek, and the words long afterwards rang in the ears of Bertheline and Bertrand.
As I returned to this spot some months later in order to explore the cavern, I may as well give an account of the adventure here. I was accompanied by my neighbour Decros, who gave his donkey on this occasion a half-holiday. Decros, although a native of the locality, could not tell me how far the cavern extended, for he had never been tempted to explore its depths himself, nor had he heard of anybody who knew more than himself about it. A story, however, was told of a shepherd-boy who long ago went down the opening, and was never seen again.
'Perhaps,' said I, 'we shall find his skeleton.' This observation brought a peculiar expression to my companion's face, which meant that he had no ambition whatever to share the surprise of such a discovery. Although he had done his duty bravely in the war of 1870, he was by no means free from the awe with which these gouffres inspired the country-people, and his soldiering had still left him a Cadurcian Celt, with much of the superstition that he had drawn in with his native air. One morning he found that his donkey had nearly strangled himself over-night with the halter, and Decros could not shake off the impression that this accident was an omen intended to convey some message from the other world. He was ready to go with me into any cavern; but I am sure he would have much preferred scaling dangerous rocks in the broad sunlight, for there he would have felt at home.
There was not too much water to offer any danger, so we stooped down and entered the low vault after lighting candles. The roof soon rose, and we were in a spacious cavern, the sides of which had evidently been washed and worn away into hollows by the sea that rolled here long before the mysterious race raised its dolmens and tumuli upon the surrounding knolls. The passage was wide enough for us to walk on the margin of the stream, or where the water was very shallow; but had much rain fallen, the expedition would have been perilous, for the descending torrent would then have been strong enough to carry a man off his legs.
Stalactites hung from the rocks overhead, and as we proceeded they became more numerous, more fantastic, and more beautiful. They were just as the dropping water had slowly fashioned them in the darkness of ages, where day and night were the same, where nothing changed but themselves, save the voice of the stream, which grew louder or softer according to the play of winds and sunshine and clouds upon the upper world. Some tapered to a fine point, others were like pendant bunches of grapes; all were of the whiteness of loaf-sugar. No tourists stricken with that deplorable mania for taking home souvenirs of everything, and ready to spoil any beauty to gratify their vanity or their acquisitiveness, had cast stones into the midst of the fairy handicraft of the wizard water for the sake of a fragment; nor had the village boys amused themselves here at the expense of the stalactites, for happily they had been well trained in the horror of the supernatural. The cavern ran for a certain distance south-west; then the gallery turned at a sharp angle north-north-west, and continued in this direction. We followed the stream some three or four hundred yards, and then it entered a deep pool or lake under low rocks. We tried a side-passage to see if it led round this obstacle, but it soon came to an end. As I stood on the brink of the deep, black, silent pool, I had a great longing to know what lay beyond; but I had to content myself with imagining the unrevealed wonders of the cavern. It would be just possible, by crouching down in a little boat, to pass under the rock, which is probably no insuperable obstacle. The roof is just as likely to form a high vault on one side of it as on the other. The water is the serious obstacle; but it is safe to say, from the character of the formation, that the deep pool does not extend very far. A peculiarity of these underground streams of the causses is that they generally form a chain of pools.
If a shepherd-boy really lost his life in this cavern, he must have done so by trying to pass the pool, unless he was washed into it by a sudden rush of water after a heavy storm. It must be confessed that the spot is calculated to fill one with superstitious dread. The calm of the deep water into which the stream glides makes it quite easy to imagine, with the help of the surroundings, that there is an evil spirit lurking in it—perhaps that of the wicked Pehautier whom the demons dragged down here. I had another grim thought: Supposing this water, in obedience to some pressure elsewhere, should rise suddenly and flood the lower part of the cavern! There is no knowing what tricks water may play in this fantastic region, where the tendency of rivers is to flow underground, and where one gallery may be connected with a ramification of water-courses extending over many miles of country, and with reservoirs which empty themselves periodically by means of natural syphons. There is a world full of marvels under the causses of the Lot, the Aveyron, and the Lozere; but although much more will be known about it, a vast deal will remain for ever hidden from man.
I will now return to my wayfaring across the Causse de Gramat in the early summer.
I had passed through the village of Alvignac—a little watering-place that draws all the profit it can from a ferruginous spring which rises at Miers hard by, but otherwise uninteresting, and had left on my right the village of Thegra, where the troubadour Hugues de St. Cyr was born, when suddenly the landscape struck me with the sentiment of England. For some hours I had been walking chiefly over the stony causse, searching for a so-called castle that was not worth the trouble of finding. I had seen spurge and juniper, and ribs of rock rising everywhere above the short turf, until I grew weary of the sameness. Now, the sun, whose ardour was already melting into the tenderness of evening, shone upon a broad valley, where the grass stood high in rich meadows separated from other meadows and green cornfields by hedges, from the midst of which rose many a tall tree. The blackbird's low, flute-like note sounded above the shrilling of the grasshoppers.
The little village of Padirac was entered at sundown. The small inn where I chose my quarters for the night had a garden at the back, where vines in new leaf were trained, over a trellis from end to end. There were also broad beans in flower, peas on sticks, currant-bushes, and pear-trees. It was a quiet, green spot, and as I strolled about it in the twilight, vague recollections of other gardens chased one another, but it would have been hard to say whether they were pleasant or sad. My dinner or supper was of sorrel soup and part of a goose that was killed the previous autumn, and, after being slightly salted, was preserved in grease.
Lean tortoiseshell cats, with staring eyes and tails like strings, kept near at hand, and seemed ready to commit any crime for the smallest particle of goose. String-tailed, goggle-eyed, meagre cats that seize your dinner if you do not keep watch over it, and when caressed promptly respond by scratching and swearing, appear to be held in high favour throughout this district. They are expected to live upon rats, and it is this that makes them so disagreeable, for although they kill rats for the pleasure of the chase, they do not like the flavour of them. On this subject there is a standing quarrel between them and society, which insists upon their eating the animals that they kill. In order that the cats shall have every facility for the chase, holes are often cut in the bottom of house-doors, so that at night they may go in and come out as the quarry moves them. Should any food have been left about, what with the rats and the cats, not a trace of it will be seen in the morning. This I know from experience.
Being within a mile or so of the Puit de Padirac—that gloomy hole in the earth which was supposed to be one of the devil's short-cuts between this world and his own, until M. Martel proved almost conclusively that it was not the way to the infernal city, but to a subterranean river, and a chain of lakes that could be followed for two miles—I set out the next morning to find it. I might have spent hours in vain casting about, but for the help of a peasant, who offered, quite disinterestedly, to be my guide. He was an old man, with a very Irish face, and eyes that laughed at life. But for his language he would have seemed a perfectly natural growth of Cork or Kerry.
Here may be the place to remark that the stock of the ancient Cadurci appears to have been much less impaired here in an ethnological sense by the mingling of races than in the country round Cahors. The peasants, generally, have nothing distinctively Southern in their appearance, although they speak a dialect which is in the main a Latin one, the Celtic words that have been retained being in a very small proportion. Gray or blue eyes are almost as frequent among them as they are with the English, and many of the village children have hair the colour of ripening maize.
We left the fertile valley and rose upon the stone-scattered causse where hellebore, spurges, and juniper were the only plants not cropped close to the earth by the flocks of sheep which thrive upon these wastes. All the sheep are belled, but the bells they wear are like big iron pots hanging upon their breasts. Each pot has a bone that swings inside of it and serves as a hammer. The chief use of these bells is to prevent the animal from leaving its best wool, that of the breast, upon the thorns of bushes.
We have now reached the brink of the pit, which is not bottomless, but looks so until the eye faintly distinguishes something solid at a depth that has been measured at 175 feet. The opening is almost circular, with a diameter at the orifice of 116 feet. This prodigious well, sunk in successive layers of secondary rock, looks as if it had been regularly quarried; but men could never have had the motive for giving themselves so much trouble. Did the rock fall in here? No explanation is satisfactory. How it fills one with awe to look into the depth while lying upon a slab of stone that stretches some distance beyond the side of the pit! Bushes with twisted and fantastic arms, growing, they or their ancestors, from time immemorial in the clefts of the rock, reach towards the light, and the elfish hart's-tongue fern, itself half in darkness, points down with frond that never moves in that eternal stillness which all the winds of heaven pass over, to a thicker darkness whence comes the everlasting wail and groan of hidden water.
This horrid gulf being in the open plain, with not even a foot of rough wall round it as a protection for the unwary, I asked the old man if people had never fallen into it.
'Yes,' he answered, 'but only those who have been pushed by evil spirits.'
He meant that only self-murderers had fallen into the Puit de Padirac. 'Pushed by evil spirits.' Perhaps this is the best of all explanations of the suicidal impulse. Strong thoughts are sometimes hidden under the simplicity of rustic expression. He told me the story of a man who, having gone by night to throw himself into the Puit de Padirac, came in contact with a tough old bush during his descent which held him up. By this time the would-be suicide disliked the feeling of falling so much that, so far from trying to free himself from the bush and begin again, he held on to it with all his might and shrieked for help. But as people who are not pushed by evil spirits give the Puit de Padirac a wide berth after sundown, the wretched man's cries were lost in the darkness. The next morning the shepherd children, as they led their flocks over the plain, heard a strange noise coming from the pit, but their horror was stronger than their curiosity, and they showed their sheep how to run. They went home and told their fathers what they had heard, and at length some persons were bold enough to look down the hole, from which the dismal sound the children had noticed continued to rise. Thus the cause of the mysterious noise was discovered, and the man was hauled up with a rope. He never allowed the evil spirits to push him into the Puit de Padirac again.
The people of these causses have a supernatural explanation for everything that they cannot account for by the light of reason and observation. They have their legend with regard to the Puit de Padirac, and it is as follows: St. Martin, before he became Bishop of Tours, was crossing one day this stony region of the Dordogne to visit a religious community on the banks of the Solane, whither he had been despatched by St. Hilary. He was mounted on a mule, and was ambling along over the desert plunged in pious contemplation, when he heard a little noise behind, and, looking round, he was surprised to see a gentleman close to him, who was also riding a mule. The stranger was richly dressed, and was altogether a very distinguished-looking person, but the excessive brilliancy of his eyes was a disfigurement. They shone in his head like two bits of burning charcoal. 'What do you want, cruel beast?' said St. Martin. This would scarcely have been saintly language had he not known with whom he had to deal. The gentleman thus impolitely addressed returned a soft answer, and forced his company upon the saint, who wished him—at home. Presently Lucifer, for it was he, began to 'dare' St. Martin, after the manner of boys to-day. 'If I kick a hole in the ground I dare you to jump over it,' was the sort of language employed by the gentleman with the too-expressive eyes. 'Done!' said St. Martin, or something equivalent. 'Digging pits is quite in my line of business!' exclaimed the devil, in so disagreeable a voice that the saint's mule would have bolted had the holy rider not kept a tight rein upon her. At the same moment the ground over which the infernal mule had just passed fell in with a mighty rumble and crash, leaving a yawning gulf. 'Now,' said Lucifer, 'let me see you jump over that!' Whereupon, the bold St. Martin drove his spurs into his mule and lightly leapt over the abyss. And this was how the Puit de Padirac was made. The peasants believe that they can still see on a stone the imprint left by the hoof of St. Martin's mule. This adventure did not cause the saint and the devil to part company. They rode on together as far as the valley of Medorium (Miers). 'Now,' said St. Martin, 'you jump over that!' pointing to a little stream that was seen to flow suddenly and miraculously out of the earth. Before challenging the arch enemy he had, however, taken the precaution to lay two small boughs in the form of a cross on the brink of the water. In vain the devil spurred his mule and used the worst language that he could think of to induce the beast to jump. The animal would not; but, as the spurring and swearing were continued, it at length went down on its knees before the cross. But this did not suit the devil's turn. On the contrary, the proximity of that emblem which St. Martin had placed unobserved on the ground made him writhe as though he had fallen into a font. Then with the speed of a lightning flash he returned to his own kingdom—possibly by the Puit de Padirac. A church dedicated to the saint was afterwards built near the scene of his triumph, and the healing spring where it comes out of the earth is still known by the name of Lou Fount Sen Morti—St. Martin's Fountain.