Literary Rambes in France II.

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(Although I did not venture into the depths of Padirac, I add a few
lines of description which may prove serviceable to others.)

ROCAMADOUR and Padirac are two huge accidents, the one an upheaval, the other a fissure in one of those vast table-lands or plateaux of Central France called Causses; a word derived from the Provençal, in its turn derived from the Latin calx or calcinum, lime.

    It is only within the last twenty-five years that this strange region has been explored by men of science and tourists.  Padirac with its stalactite caves, river, and lakelets was only discovered in 1889, when a Paris lawyer, accompanied by a friend equally intrepid, ventured into the awful abyss, finding marvels that recalled Kubla Khan's vision and the stately pleasure house, where—

'Alph the sacred river ran
 Through caverns measureless to man,
 Down to a sunless sea.'

    Aridity of soil, an arctic climate, solitude and desolation, characterise the Causes, at their base lying fertile fields, verdant valleys, meandering streams and silvery cascades.  Above, not a rill, not a beck refreshes the porous, stony soil, the showers of summer and wintry snows filtering to a depth of thousands of feet below.  Another striking feature of the Caussien region is the frequently occurring aven or yawning chasm, subject of superstitious awe and terror among the country folk.  These mysterious openings are locally known as Trous d'enfer (infernal holes).  Alike fact and legend had increased the popular dread of the aven.  It was known that many an unfortunate animal had fallen into some abyss never to be heard of after.  More than one seigneurial Bluebeard of these regions—so ran local story—had thus widowed himself.  And according to the country folk of Padirac, the devil hurrying away with a captured soul was here overtaken by St. Martin on horseback.  A struggle ensued, 'Accursed saint!' cried the evil one, 'thou wilt hardly leap my ditch,' with a tap of his heel opening the rock before them, splitting it in two.  But St. Martin's steed leaped it at a bound, the soul was rescued, and the prince of darkness, instead of the saint, was sent below.



    The descent and exploration of Padirac is the crowning achievement of my friend, M. E. A. Martel, the Paris lawyer who has won for himself the title of the Columbus of the nether world.

    When in 1889 M. Martel, accompanied by a friend adventuresome as himself, prepared for the expedition, the country folks were aghast—'You will get down easily enough, gentlemen,' they said, 'but you will never come up again.'

    The curates of the neighbouring villages were equally emphatic.  Nor is the general stupefaction difficult to understand, although to that day, the frightful maw, as M. Martel aptly terms the crater, had never been fenced around or in any way protected.  So far, at least, familiarity had lessened traditional horrors.  From time immemorial the crater-like opening, three hundred feet in circumference and a hundred feet broad, had remained without a palisade, Brobdingnagian well doubtless sucking in many a human and four-footed victim.  Accustomed to the sight of that gueule effroyable although they were, not a single peasant could be prevailed upon to accompany the explorers.  Not to be dismayed, the pair went down one at a time.  When M. Martel had safely alighted on a half-way ledge the swing was drawn up for his companion.

    Exactly fourteen months to a day after the first descent, a second was made, upwards of a thousand spectators looking on.  The explorers, now a party of five, had provided themselves with thirty-five yards of rope ladder, three collapsible canoes, two photographic apparatus, and electric lamp, with, of course, provisions, and indeed everything of which they might stand in need.  Their experiences were breathlessly interesting.  By eight o'clock in the evening M. Martel and his companions found themselves safe and sound at the bottom of the cavern.  Several stages had been first alighted at and visited, the final depth being 250 feet.

    A gay and hearty supper was followed by an interval of rest, and shortly after midnight the little illuminated flotilla set forth, magnesian lights and electric lamps irradiating the colossal walls of stalactite as they went.  Winding in and out—now obliged to land and carry their boats and baggage, now gently gliding from lake to lake, the exhilaration of one moment making them forget the fatigue of the rest—our explorers reached the limit of the cavern, further progress being arrested by a solid mass of rock, no outlet being visible.

    It was now nearly seven o'clock in the morning, but three hours elapsed before they reached the place of embarkation, three and a half more before they could tear themselves away from their photographic apparatus to luncheon.  By four P.M. the party had reached the surface, overcome with fatigue and exposure but enraptured with their experiences.  They had navigated an underground river a mile and six furlongs in length, its meanderings forming four little lakes separated by natural weirs, all these set in a framework of glittering stalactites.

    'Wonder,' writes M. Martel, 'seals our lips.  One by one the four lakelets are glided over, the rocky walls on either side draped with stalactites glittering in the magnesian light like sheets of diamonds, and all reflected in the smooth, transparent water.  Not a sound breaks the stillness of this hitherto unknown world but the gentle plash of our oars and the trickling of water from overhead, the hollow cavernous roof echoing the fall, making soft, penetrating rhythm.  Not a living soul had preceded us on the weird voyage.  We are wholly remote from the living, sunlit, familiar world.  We ask ourselves, "Do we not, indeed, dream?  Can the scenes around us be reality?"'

    These marvels are now rendered accessible to all.  After nine years of unremitting labours aided by effective co-operation, M. Martel's discovery, his region of 'antres vastes,' Tartarean lakes, and marvellous coruscations have become common property.  With the aid of a few enthusiasts, a syndicate was lately formed under the name of La Société anonyme du Puit de Padirac; the subterranean region was acquired at a cost of fifty thousand francs, the mouth of the chasm enclosed, and a safe and easy method of descending arranged, of this an illustration giving some idea.

    A moderate fixed tariff, five francs, is charged, the entrance fee including descent, guides, exploration of galleries and cruise of lakelets and river, the entire excursion occupying a few hours only.  Return tickets combining both excursions, namely, to Rocamadour and Padirac, may be obtained in Paris at the Agence Officielle des Chemins de Fer, 1 Rue d'Échelle, opposite the Tuileries Gardens.  About the absolute safety of the subterranean expedition as now arranged there seems little doubt.  Of course those subject to vertigo or afraid of sudden chills will enjoy the undertaking vicariously.  Rocamadour and Padirac can be hurriedly visited from Limoges in a day.

    'Ah, ladies,' cried a French fellow-traveller, as some days after, myself and friend awaited the Angoulême train at Limoges, 'you little know what you have missed in not visiting Padirac.  It is grandiose, it is fairylike, it is unimaginable, indescribable.  And only four hundred and forty steps to descend and mount—a mere trifle!'

    Ladies do indeed patronise the four hundred and forty steps and collapsible boats.  A young Frenchwoman of my acquaintance, who visited Padirac in the long vacation of last year, assured me that the excursion was comparatively easy, and that fatigue was well rewarded.

    For a full account of M. Martel's subterranean explorations in France, various parts of the Continent, Majorca, Ireland and Yorkshire, I must refer readers to his works Les Cévennes, 1890; Les Abîmes, 1894; L'Irlande, 1896; also to his periodical Spelunca, organ of the Société de Spéléologie.




IT is a beautiful bit of country between Limoges and Angoulême, not very productive, but wooded, pastoral, and abounding in running water.

    In Les Deux Poètes the background plays a much more important part than in Le Curé du Village.  Limoges was peculiarly adapted to such a story, but it is the configuration of Angoulême that seems to have suggested the tragic history of the vain little provincial son of a poor chemist, devoured by the ambition of figuring in aristocratic and literary circles; in other words, of exchanging his native spot, the commercial quarters of the river, for the upper town above.  Every incident is derived from this division of the city into upper and lower, and consequent separation of classes.

    In Balzac's description of the city we discern the genesis of his novelette: 'Built on a sugar-loaf rock, Angoulême dominates the meadowland watered by the Charente.  The importance of this city during the religious wars is attested by the ramparts, city gates, and ruined fortresses.  It was a position strategically of equal value to both Catholics and Huguenots, but what constituted a strength in the past is at the present day a source of weakness; the city not being capable of extension on the banks of the river is thus condemned to disastrous fixedness.'

    About the time the incidents in this story occurred (1802-30) 'the Government was making an effort to add to the existing town grouped around the public buildings.  But commerce has already taken the initiative.  Long before the suburb I'Houmeau had sprung up like a bed of mushrooms alongside the river, this faubourg became an industrial town, a second Angoulême, a lower town emulating the upper with its prefecture, its bishopric, and aristocracy.  Angoulême proper housed the noblesse and influence; I'Houmeau commerce and money; two social zones existed at perpetual variance.

    'It is easy to divine how the sentiment of caste divided the two towns.  Business is rich, noblesse is generally poor.  The one revenges itself on the other by mutual contempt.  An inhabitant of l'Houmeau, then, introduced to Madame de Bargeton of the upper town was a revolution on a small scale.'

    Lucien Chardon, who arrogated to himself the title of M. de Rubempré, was that uninteresting being, a small Apollo Belvedère, that is to say, handsome, shapely, and possessed of a gift of rhyme and inordinate vanity.  Adored alike by his mother, the chemist's widow, who earned a living by midwifery, by his sister and her fiancé, an excellent printer, the young man is enabled to carry out his views.  Owing to the most painful privations on their part he obtains the necessary outfit for presentation to Madame de Bargeton, the bel esprit and leading spirit of upper Angoulême.

    Lucien's first evening in the charmed circle of the Ville Haute is wonderfully described.  The young fop's devoted sister had bought for him with her earnings 'thin boots at the best bootmaker's of the town and a new complete suit at the most fashionable tailor's; his best shirt she had trimmed with a jabot or laced front, which she washed and ironed herself.  With what joy she beheld him ready equipped for his visit!  How proud she felt of her brother!'

    The habitués of Madame de Bargeton's salon form a representative group.  The provincial noblesse of the Restoration is portrayed as Balzac alone could portray it.  A mortification in the midst of his triumph foreshadows Lucien's future; but as Rousseau has truly declared, vanity is a quite incurable foible.  The unhappy young man, not content with ruining his sister's husband, becomes a social wreck, his miserable career ending self-murder.  The conclusion of his story, however, takes us away from Angoulême, and fills a volume and a half of literary struggles under the title of Un Grand Homme de Province à Paris.

    Most curious and instructive are these pages, a picture of a Parisian Grub Street, let us hope now non-existent.

    The handsome capital of the department of the Charente is greatly enlarged and beautified since Balzac described it, three quarters of a century ago.  On recently revisiting it, after an interval of eighteen years, I found a great many new buildings and improvements; but the essential features familiarised by a reading of Les Deux Poètes remain intact, and whether we survey the magnificent panorama that stretches before us on the heights of Beaulieu or stroll down to the riverside below, we think less of Coligny and the Duc d'Épernon, of another Balzac, the so-called 'restaurateur de la langue française,' of the Marguerite des Marguerites, and other historic personages whose history is interwoven with that of Angoulême, than of the poor vain poetaster, Lucien Chardon, soi-disant de Rubempré, and his divinity, Louise de Bargeton.  So much more real seem the creations of genius than the heroes and heroines of tradition!

    In Eve et David, which is a pendant to Les Deux Poètes, Balzac quits the topographical and social for the industrial aspect of Angoulême.  'Balzac,' observes a French writer, M. Rambaud, 'must have divined rather than observed men and things when writing his great series.  A comparatively short lifetime and habits of seclusion did not admit of the close study and accurate observation suggested by these marvellous delineations.'  The second story, the scene of which is laid in Angoulême, affords a striking instance of Balzac's intuitive faculty, or shall we say, deductive methods?  The pathetic history of the wretched Lucien's sister and brother-in-law reveals an entire industrial phase.  Not only do we realise the struggles of a poor printer, but the conditions of the printing and paper-making trade under the Restoration.



    For generations Angoulême had been, as it is today, a seat of paper-manufacture, and at the time of which Balzac wrote, the fabrication of cheapened paper occupied many minds.  After the Revolution and the Napoleonic wars, newspapers, which had been all but banished under the Empire, were multiplied, more books were written and read.  The excessive dearness of paper seriously hampered commercial and literary initiative.

    The subject naturally appealed to Balzac's commercial instincts, and in reading Eve et David we might take it for a bit of biography and suppose that the novelist had served his apprenticeship in a printing office.  Again, David's straitened circumstances gave scope to true Balzacian visionariness.  Lucien had reduced his sister and her husband to beggary; only one thing could save them, that one thing the traditional chimera, an invention.  Could the poor printer only find a substitute for cotton in the manufacture of paper, his fortune was made.  Now from 1826 to 1836 a French inventor named Piette had first made paper of bark, reeds, hay, and straw.  At the time Balzac wrote, experiment and discovery were in the air.  It would be interesting to know how far in David's history the novelist is himself an inventor.  Without possessing the psychological interest of Les Deux Poètes, this story is well worth reading, especially at Angoulême.  As a study of the bourgeoise, Eve is worthy to stand beside the noble Mme. Birotteau.  David, too, with his simple, sturdy heroism, is a fine character.  The population of this great city, like the bookworm, may be said to fatten on paper.  The local product is largely exported, especially to America, whilst home consumption is enormous.  An age of universal education is naturally the zenith of paper-mills.  The bulk consumed in French schools a decade ago averaged two hundred millions' pound weight, double that consumed in private correspondence.  Very likely the sum-total by this time has doubled.  The devastations of the phylloxera twenty and odd years ago gave an immense impetus to this industry, turning their attention to trade.

   Angoulême is quite gloriously placed.  It stands on a veritable rock à pic—that is to say, the steep sides of the rocky summit on which the ancient town and ramparts were built run perpendicularly to the plain below.  The city, with its noble Romanesque cathedral, clustering spire, and gleaming roofs, rises above hanging woods and gardens, a veritable coronal of greenery smiling away all savageness.  Lovely beyond description is the vast plain below, the river Charente—'fairest river of my kingdom,' said the Gascon king, Henri Quatre—winding its sinuous way amid avenues of tall poplars and wide pastures, every object being reflected in its clear waters.  Countless green islets, mere groves and gardens, are formed by the convolutions of the river, whilst far off are seen white villages and distant church spires dotting the vast landscape.  Most beautiful is the play of light and shadow on foliage and water when the sun breaks forth; the yellow tints of autumn are not visible as yet on this September visit, all the hues are of summer.  A dozen subjects for an artist meet the eye in a single stroll, whether made in the upper town or the lower, two little worlds apart.

    The great charm of the Charente is the unequalled clearness and transparency of its waters; it is this feature that lends such beauty and poetic aspect to the immediate surroundings of Angoulême and the neighbouring country.  The effect from a boat is said to be magical.  'As you gently glide along,' writes one familiar with the scene, 'amid water-lilies, and removed by a few yards only from the river's bed, carpeted with dusty verdure, you must fain believe yourself to be floating in mid-air.  The water disappears.  You recognise its presence by the undulations of the boat and the play of light and shadow round about.'  It is also said that the waters of the neighbouring Touvre, in themselves bright and clear, look dull by comparison.

    To realise the fine position and picturesqueness of Angoulême the circuit must be made both above and below.  The round of the ramparts is easily accomplished on foot; that of the lower city is best made in a carriage and continued for some distance on the Bordeaux road, a drive of an hour or two.  Alike from the heights and the plains, the views are fine and varied.  Conspicuous on all sides, the noblest feature and crowning ornament of the scene, rises the grand tower of the cathedral, compared by some to the Tower of Pisa.  The ancient fortifications have been turned to admirable account as a recreation ground for the people.  In such matters French ingenuity and taste are always equal to the occasion, and this city now affords its inhabitants sunny, sheltered promenades in winter and delicious coolness in summer.  A fine view of the Charente valley is obtained from the Promenade Beaulieu, a bit of Knowle Park in the heart of a bustling, lively, prosperous city.  You drive all at once into a world of greenness and shadow, to emerge as suddenly on the rim of a vast, open, sunny plain and meandering river; a dozen rivers there seem to be in one, so numerous and capricious are its sinuosities.

    Built in the Romanesque-Byzantine style, St. Pierre of Angoulême recalls the cathedrals of Périgueux and Poitiers.  The original church dates from the beginning of the twelfth century, but it was restored in the seventeenth and partially reconstructed between 1866 and 1875.  Thus, as is the case with St. Front at Périgueux, this noble cathedral has a disconcertingly new appearance.

    Both without and within we are reminded of the St. Sophia of Périgord, but the resemblance is superficial.  Here we have only one dome visible from the outside, that of magnificent proportions, the three domes of the interior being roofed in; the general arrangement, too, is different.  At Angoulême we do not for a moment imagine ourselves in Constantinople, Venice, or Cordova, nor are we overwhelmed as by the immensity of St. Front of Périgueux.  The façade is of great elaborateness and beauty.

    Angoulême possesses some noteworthy specimens of modern French architecture.  The Hotel de Ville (1886), the romanesque churches of St. Ausone and St. Martial (1854 and 1864), all these designed by M. Abadie, do great credit alike to municipal enterprise and taste.  It is astounding how money is always forthcoming in France for the embellishment of towns!

    The historic heroine of Angoulême is Marguerite de Valois, that gracious figure so worthily commemorated here in marble.  As 'shines a good deed in a naughty world' so does her gracious personality irradiate an epoch of dark superstition and intolerance.  Poet, story-teller, patroness of art and letters, stylish, we love best to think of the woman who 'disdained no one,' to quote an old historian's noble eulogium, to whom every man was a brother, every woman a sister, and whose voice was ever raised on behalf of the down-trodden and unhappy.  Mother of the great queen, Jeanne d'Albret, grandmother of the greatest king who ever sat on the French throne, Marguerite d'Angoulême vindicates the theory of spiritual heredity.  In spite of bigoted protests to the contrary, the protectress of Marot and Bonaventure des Périers, there is no doubt that she died, as she had lived, a Protestant.

    How came it about, one may well ask, that so sensitive and refined a lady could pen stories in the freest vein of Boccaccio?  The answer is simple.  Libertinage was in the air; she but caught, or rather unconsciously imbibed, the tone of the day.  Politeness and moral latitude went hand in hand.  As M. Henri Martin has remarked, the court of François Premier developed a new society, hitherto without precedent, witty, learned, graceful and licentious.  Every one versified, courtiers, courtesans, grave magistrates, the king following suit.  And some versified to good purpose.  Marot called Marguerite d'Angoulême sa sœur de poésie, and she shone equally in verse and in sisterly devotion.  When, having lost all but honour on the field of Pavia, the king was detained a prisoner in Spain, he fell dangerously ill.  Epistolary literature shows nothing more touching than the letters she despatched before hastening to his side.  Grave, gay, patriotic, devotional, domestic, in turn she tried every note that might inspirit and console the prisoner.

    The attitude of Marguerite towards reform made her many enemies, some of whom have not hesitated to bespatter with mud a name singularly endearing.  Born at Angoulême in 1472, she died in 1549, having been twice married, first to Charles, duc d'Alençon becoming a widow in 1525, she married Henri d'Albret, King of Navarre.  The Heptameron is a classic, and some of her verses are poetry, not those, to quote Herbert Spencer, 'of a victim of the verse-making disorder.'

    Lovers of architecture will find much to interest them in the Charente, the round arch predominating.  In museums and art collections, Angoulême is exceptionally poor, indeed, it may be said, undowered.  An unrivalled position, a magnificent cathedral, and abundant walks and drives make up for such deficiency.




IT is now many years since I visited the home of Eugenie Grandet—can we think of Saumur without recalling Balzac's famous novel?  And if I returned thither I should most likely endorse my first impressions.  We may be very well sure that this most ingratiating little place, so sprightily perched on the Loire, has advanced with its neighbours' material progress and civic enterprise; then gradually changing its physiognomy.

    Saumur, then, is an elegant, animated town with pretty, white, slated villas, each standing in its own garden; magnolias, oleanders, pomegranate-trees and other tropical plants here flourishing as on the Riviera.

    A couple of fine bridges span the Loire, and these, during the war of 1870-1, the townsfolk intended to blow up at the first sight of the Prussians.  The enemy fortunately did not arrive, and the gay, gracious little town was left intact.

    Once as Protestant as Protestant could be; the principal commerce of the place to-day is the manufacture of rosaries!  Until the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, Saumur numbered 25,000 souls, the population is now just half that sum-total.

    Life and bustle are afforded by the great Cavalry School, which is perhaps answerable for the saying—'Fait-on toujours l'amour à Saumur?'  It looks essentially a love-making place, so smiling and coquettish are its suburban-like streets, for the country has crept in everywhere, and you can hardly lose yourself amid roofs and walls, trees and gardens.

    In the steep, narrow, ill-paved street leading to the chateau we still find ourselves in Balzac's Saumur.  Here little is changed since the novelist penned that wonderful description, an unforgettable picture in a few words.  The cobble-stones only from time to time resound with the clatter of footsteps.  To-day, as three quarters of a century ago, the inhabitants talk to each other of the weather as they stand on their doorsteps, 'the barometer alternately cheering, subduing, or rendering gloomy their countenances.'  More than one ancient dwelling recalls the home of Eugénie Grandet, but the especial one associated with her name was pulled down some time ago.

    One feature of Saumur unconnected with romance the curious should not miss.  Until 1872 the sick and agèd poor of Saumur were housed in caves and grottoes after the manner of Troglodytes.  Saumurois acquaintances kindly conducted me over these strange precincts, surely the strangest ever consecrated to works of pious benevolence.  How the old and infirm were ever hoisted up to the rocky eminence turned into an hospital it is hard to conceive; of one thing we may be certain: once up they never got down again.  In the sides of the 'tuffeau' or yellow chalky rock, doors and iron gates opened into far-stretching cavernous passages and chambers only lighted and ventilated by the door, these subterranean habitations forming the wards of the hospital!  On the terrace outside, a few flowers and trees have been planted, and there the less feeble took the air on sunny days, but in their beds the patients enjoyed less light and air than prisoners of the bad old times.  Under the Third Republic the premises, if they can be so called, were shut up, and a large airy hospital was erected.  Most picturesque is the sight of this ironically named 'Hospice de la Providence.'  You look down on the white, joyous-looking town with its flowers and greenery, and the broad clear Loire flowing amid sunny banks and fertile reaches.  And beautiful is the drive of an hour and a half to Fontevrault.  On one side rise the green heights commanding Saumur, Dampierre, and Souzé, crowned by their chateaux and encircled with villas, on the other the river glides between verdant slopes and rushy, willowy banks.

    The churches of Saumur are very interesting; the town possesses a museum rich in Celtic and Gallo-Roman relics, a botanical garden, theatre, and good public library, in fact the resources of a capital in miniature.

    Here was born and lived that skilled Hellenist, Madame Dacier.  But an unsophisticated heroine of romance has eclipsed the paragon of learning.  In our wanderings here we forget the translatress of Plato and Sappho, we can only dwell upon poor little Eugénie Grandet, and the good things she contrived to smuggle for faithless cousin Charles.

    I have called Eugénie Grandet the heroine of romance, but is not the very name an anachronism?  Have not all heroines of romance really breathed, moved, laughed, cried like ourselves?

    Recent research would seem to show that such at least was the case with one of the most pathetic figures in fictional portraiture.  And almost as much time, pains, and ingenuity have been bestowed upon unravelling her origin as upon excavating Pharaoh's tomb or the palace of Minos.

    It is, as we should expect, to French writers that we are indebted for the genesis of this famous little novel.  In his delightful flâneries or literary zigzags through France, M. André Hallays has recently given us the story. [p.102]

    Whilst visiting the fifteenth-century château of Montreuil-Bellay, lying about half-way between Angers and Poitiers, M. Hallays was struck by the perpetual reiteration of a name:—'Monsieur Niveleau,' a former owner, 'did this, Monsieur Niveleau did that,' said his guide.

    'And who was Monsieur Niveleau?' at last asked the tourist.

    'You don't know?'

    'Indeed no, I never heard his name before.'

    'Not heard of Monsieur Niveleau!  Why, he was the père Grandet and no other.  It is even averred that Balzac wanted to marry his daughter, that he was sent away with a flea in his ear, and revenged himself by writing the novel.  But, ask further particulars when you get to Saumur—every one knows the history of the père Niveleau.'

    M. Hallays followed this advice, with the result that we have an authentic history of Balzac's old miser and usurer.

    The real père Grandet—in other words, Jean Niveleau, began life at Saumur as a rag-merchant, afterwards becoming a money-lender; finally, having amassed an enormous fortune, he purchased the château of Montreuil-Bellay, himself in threadbare garments acting as cicerone and complacently pocketing visitors' tips!  He married an apothecary's daughter, who bore him two daughters and a son, one of the former, the accredited Eugénie of romance, being locally celebrated for her beauty.  Here, however, the thread connecting fact and fiction breaks off.  'La belle Niverdière,' as Mlle. Niveleau was called after one of her father's estates, in 1830 married the Baron de Grandmaison, uncle of the actual owner of Montreuil-Bellay.

    In a postscript to his chapter, M. Hallays throws further light on this curious problem.  Dismissing as apocryphal the story of Balzac's proposal, affront, and revenge, our author gives the following facts, which he believes to be exact:—It happened that Balzac was visiting his friend, M. de Margonne, at Sache near Azay-le-Rideau in Touraine, when one evening another guest, M. de V—, related the history of the père Niveleau.  Balzac was so much struck with what he had heard that he straightway started for Saumur, and revisited the place upon several occasions, picking up all the stray information he could get about the usurer and his family.  One favourite method of obtaining materials was to jaunt hither and thither by diligence, and enter into conversation with the passengers, most of whom would naturally belong to the neighbourhood.

    And if the père Grandet may be considered a real personage, may not the same be believed of his daughter?  Might not Balzac have unearthed some love story anterior to the heiress's marriage with M. de Bonfons, an aspirant to the peerage—and the condition of widowhood—in other words, that he might enjoy his wife's fortune?

    Be this as it may, no more moving story was ever penned than the history of Eugénie Grandet, and never was any immortal fabric fashioned out of simpler materials.  An artless girl, capable, despite her simplicity, of ardent passion, is parsimoniously brought up by the wealthy parvenu, her father.  In childhood and early youth, maternal devotion and the tenderness of an old woman servant suffice to fill a heart hungering for affection.  But on the threshold of womanhood a quite different and deeper feeling is awakened.  The arrival of her cousin Charles, a finished Parisian fop, 'who imitates the expression of Lord Byron in Chantrey's bust,' is the first, the only real, event of Eugénie's monotonous existence.  For a time the tragic death of his father affects Charles's shallow nature.  Maybe for a time he believed in himself, and that the secret vows exchanged under the walnut-tree would end in marriage.  'As on a moss-grown bench of the little garden they rested till sunset, exchanging little nothings, or silent as the house itself, Charles comprehended the sanctity of love,' whilst Eugénie, surrendering herself to new delicious impressions, 'seized upon happiness as a swimmer catches hold of a willow-branch in order to alight and rest on the river's bank.'

    Her lover sets sail for the Indies, and after being awaited fifteen years in vain, marries a Marquis's daughter; Eugénie, for reasons made to appear plausible, contracting a nominal marriage with a man she despises.

    Not only is this acknowledged masterpiece a narrative of extremest simplicity, but, with the rest of Balzac's stories, it has no pretensions to style.  'Le style, c'est l'homme' does not indeed hold good with Shakespearian novelists, for Balzac's great forerunner, the glorious author of The Bride of Lammermoor, was equally careless on this head.  And the two chefs-d'œuvre have much in common: the simplest, directest narration, nothing to be called plot, but something, everything, that arrests, fascinates, and moves a reader, touching the very roots of his nature.




LONG ago also I visited the scene of Béatrix.  At the time, I wrote that already local Haussmanns had been at work, and that modernity had invaded its antique solitudes.  But the Guérande described by Balzac was there.  On entering the town from Bourg de Batz, I was at once carried back to the year 1836, 'when the Du Guénic family was composed of M. and Mme. du Guénic, and of Mlle. du Guénic, eldest sister of the Baron, and of the only son of the former, Gaudebert Louis Calyste.'

    A novel experience was that excursion to Guérande by way of St. Nazaire, Le Pouliguen, and Bourg de Batz.



    At six o'clock on a bright Sunday morning in September, I started with friends from the little station of the Bourse, amid a crowd of holidaymakers, reaching St. Nazaire at half-past eight.  No railway at that time reached Le Pouliguen, so we took a carriage, breakfasting as we drove in an open vehicle drawn by a brisk little Breton horse.  Except for the calvaires or crucifixes placed at frequent intervals by the roadside, we might have fancied ourselves in Sussex, so home-like was the scenery.  The autumn air was keen and invigorating, but as we got farther on the clouds grew lighter, and a brilliant sun accompanied us the greater part of the way.  Turning off at Le Pouliguen, we found ourselves in scenery of wilder character, and, excepting for a solitary peasant trudging to church here and there, all was deserted.  Between Le Pouliguen and Bourg de Batz lie the marais salants with odd, indescribable effect.  The neatly divided œillets, or lakelets, of the vast salt marshes cut up the expanse into a small Rob Roy pattern, each little square of salt water being fenced in by a small path.  On either side grow seaweeds, or sea-plants, some in rich blossom as we passed by.  No words can give a just idea of this unique spectacle.  To the right and to the left were fields and fields of smooth, glistening, liquid salt portioned out into myriads of tiny basins of equal size and shallowness, all silvery white in the autumn sunshine.  Far off the imposing church-tower of Bourg de Batz rose high above the plain, and behind it lay the sea—to-day calm and smooth as the mimic seas around.  As we slowly ascended the hill crowned by the church a more curious spectacle still awaited us.  The people were returning from mass, and to behold them it was hard to believe that we had left fashionable and cosmopolitan Nantes only a few hours before.  Imagination cannot picture a more fantastic or a prettier sight than this stream of church-goers with prayer-books in hand, who looked in their inimitable costume as if they had walked straight out of the Middle Ages, instead of living in close proximity to an ironed-out, uniform, nineteenth-century civilisation.  Picture to yourself, then, a crowd of village folks thus dressed: the men in hats with brims as broad as a banana-leaf gaily tasselled and braided, vests and under-vests reaching to the hips, all gaily coloured and embroidered, and lastly puffed breeches, knickerbocker trousers, pantaloons—call them what you will; certainly, leg-coverings of more piquant pattern were never invented than the balloon-like garments of creamy-white stuff, tied under the knees with long white ribbons; white stockings and white shoes completed the costume, every part of it being spick and span, as of gentlemen masqueraders going to a ball.  A masquerade, indeed, this procession might have been but for the prayer-books and staves.  It is impossible to convey any idea of the dignity of these tall, stalwart paludiers, returning home from their devotions, all utterly ignoring the inquisitive strangers who had made the journey from Nantes on purpose to stare at them.  The women were less imposing, less solemn, less unreal.  Their dress was nevertheless piquant and coquettish—a transparent white lace cap or hood, worn over a black-and-white under-cap, resembling nothing so much as a plume of guinea-fowl's feathers on either side—a gay little shawl reaching to the waist, large bright-coloured apron, kilted skirt, most often of black, and having leg-of-mutton sleeves.  The crowd was divided into groups, who chatted cheerfully, but with a soberness befitting the occasion.  The look of manly independence in every face, the neatness and elegance of their dress, their evident piety and devotion, were touching to behold.  The Brittany of Émile Souvestre has all but disappeared, and I fear that twentieth-century travellers will miss the dazzling spectacle I record.

    Guérande is superbly situated, and is a most picturesque, ancient, dead-alive town.  It stands on high ground, commanding a wide view, and is still fortified, having imposing gateways on either side and walls all round.  Outside the fortifications is a charming walk bordered by trees, and the glimpses of the quaint old streets through the gateways, the reflection of the foliage in the moat, the open country beyond, the grey walls festooned with flowers and ivy, make up a charming picture.  It is so tiny a town that you can walk round it in a quarter of an hour or thereabouts.  According to Balzac, the circular avenue of poplars is due to the municipal authorities of 1820, who at the time were much taken to task for such an innovation.  Conservative of the conservative, alike in small things and in great, has ever been Brittany.  As good luck would have it, the town council persisted in its tree-planting, thus deserving the thanks of successive generations.

    Balzac asserts that Guérande, Vitré, and Avignon are the only French towns preserving their feudal appearance intact.  He had apparently never heard of Montreuil-sur-Mer, Saumur, Provins, and Carcassonne, these by no means exhausting the list of completely walled-in towns.  This, however, by the way.  Balzac was not writing a treatise on French geography, but painting the background of a picture, a background almost as informed with vitality and suggestion as the characters animating his canvas.

    Victor Hugo lends sympathy and intelligence to winds, waves, rocks, and trees—Balzac does not ostensibly go so far, but in his elaborate delineations of dwellings, interiors, furniture, and decoration makes us realise how surroundings seem part of an individual.  Page after page is devoted to the home of the old Breton family, 'who were nothing to anybody throughout France, a subject of pleasantry in Paris, but who represented all Brittany at Guérande.  At Guérande, the Baron du Guénic was a great baron of France; higher stood only one man, the king himself.'

    The minutest details are given about the various members of the household, the baron, an old Vendean who, excepting his breviary, had never read three books in his life, and who on the Restoration had received the grade of Colonel and a pension of two thousand francs yearly.  Fanny, née O'Brien, the young Irish wife married in exile, 'one of those adorable types that only exist in England, Scotland, and Ireland.'  Mlle. Zéphyrine, the baron's blind agèd sister, who would not be operated upon for cataract, affecting timidity, but in reality aghast at the notion of twenty-five louis being spent upon the operation!  A louis, be it remembered, at that time represented twenty francs, so that the sum was considerable, just twenty pounds of our own money, and Mlle. Zéphyrine seems to have had nothing of her own.

    Madame la baronne, it must be confessed, had little of the Irishwoman about her except that she wore her hair in ringlets hanging on either cheek à l'Anglaise.

    Just as Dickens penned lamentable caricatures when drawing a French lady's maid, so in a single sentence Balzac here paints the typical French mother.

    In contemplating her son's marriage, we are told that the very last thing entering into Fanny's calculations was the question of love.  Calyste's marriage was to be essentially a French marriage, in other words a partnership based upon material consideration and the general fitness of things.  The young man, spoiled darling of the household, remains a pale, uninteresting creature throughout the volume.  Not so it is with Gasselin, majordomo and man of all work, and Mariott, cook and femme de chambre.  Balzac is never happier than in his delineations of such faithful dependants, forming members of a family, living and dying under an employer's roof.

    We are next introduced to the little society daily meeting in 'this small Faubourg St. Germain of the department.'  Inimitable, Shakespearian, are these portraits, one and all etched with the strength and sureness of Rembrandt.  First we have M. Grimont, the curé of Guérande, a man of fifty, 'in whom as he paced the streets the most sceptical would have recognised the sovereign of the Catholic town, but a sovereign whose spiritual supremacy yielded to the feudal sway of the Du Guénics; in their drawing-room he was as a chaplain in the company of his seigneur.'

    Next to arrive for the nightly game of mistigri, [p.113] or mouche, her servant lad lighting her with a lantern, is Mlle. de Pen-Hoël, an elderly lady belonging to the first Breton nobility.  She was rich, but her penuriousness was the wonder and at the same time the admiration of folks living ten leagues off.  She kept a maid-of-all-work, a thousand francs sufficing for her yearly expenditure exclusive of taxes.  She used the crook stick of court ladies of Marie Antoinette's time, as she walked; her keys, money, silver snuffbox, thimble, knitting-needles and other sonorous objects rattling in her capacious underpockets.

    The Chevalier du Halga, another old Vendean warrior and pensioner of the Restoration, made up the quartette.  A loud military knock always announces the Chevalier, who had once been of lionlike valour, was honoured with the esteem of the famous bailli de Suffren and with the friendship of the Comte de Portenduère.  Of poor health, always wearing a black silk cap and a woollen spencer, or outer vest, to protect him against the sudden winds, no one would have recognised the intrepid Breton sailor of former days.  Never smoking or giving way to an oath, gentle and quiet as a girl, his chief preoccupation was his pet dog Thisbe.

    For upwards of fifteen years this little company had played mistigri together, one and all taking their departure on the stroke of nine.

    Béatrix is no simple, direct narrative, no poignant little drama after the manner of Eugénie Grandet.  Under fictitious names Balzac gives us portraits of George Sand, Liszt, and minor personages of his day.  But these portraits hardly accord with what we have elsewhere learned of the involuntary sisters.  Nor does the history of Béatrix and Calyste hold our attention or retain a place in our memories.  It is for its opening pages, for its immortal reproduction of bygone types and characteristics that we take up the volume again and again.  As Sainte-Beuve has written:—'Balzac lived through three epochs, and his work taken as a whole up to a certain point is a mirror of each.  Who better than he has described the veterans and beauties of the Empire?  Who has more delightfully sketched the duchesses and viscountesses of the Restoration?  And who has given with more truthfulness the triumphant bourgeoisie of the July Monarchy?'

    I note without surprise that in a small volume of Balzacian selections, occur two scenes from Les deux Poètes, one from Eugénie Grandet, and the opening pages of Béatrix.




'THERE is nothing to see in France,' wrote Shelley three quarters of a century ago, and apparently most folks are of the same opinion to-day.  Such at least is the impression conveyed by newspaper columns headed, 'Pleasure trips and conducted tours.'  France does not figure among the countries now brought within reach of the most hurried travellers and most moderate purses—that is to say, France outside Normandy, Brittany, and Touraine.  But this prevailing indifference accounts for the paramount charm of unfrequented French provinces.  We find region after region absolutely free from cosmopolitan invasions; many 'a sweet recess' no less exempt from a foreign element than in pre-railway times.

    Such a spot is the island-town of Brantôme, in the valley of the Dronne—none more idyllic to be found throughout Perigord.  Here pastoral charm and historic associations are combined.  Where, indeed, is historic interest absent from a French site?

    The hotels at Périgueux, chief town of the department of the Dordogne, are not engaging.  My travelling companion and myself were enamoured of the old city, its picturesque quays, its sweet limpid river, its Byzantine cathedral, its noble statues of that contrasted pair, Montaigne and Fénelon, its tempting bookstalls and pretty promenades.  But we could not, like Falstaff, take our ease at our inn, so we steamed by tramway to Brantôme.

    Very slowly and jerkily we plodded through varied tracts, now in what looked like the remnant of a primeval forest, now across barren wastes, now finding ourselves quite suddenly amid Theocritean nooks.

    The sense of solitude and space was hardly interrupted.  Enormous must be the area of uncultivated land throughout France.  Thousands of hectares, as yet untouched by the plough, we must have passed on our way hither from Limoges.  And during this two hours' slow journey we passed hundreds, even more.  How often we longed to alight!  For, relieving the aridity of steppe-like tracts and gloomy woods, we got glimpses of little sunlit dales, velvety swards, and purling streams, not all abandoned to Oreads and Dryads.  Here and there amid patches of hemp, lucerne, and Indian corn, stood a cottage, herds grazing near, children's voices coming as a surprise in such solitudes.  The variety of foliage was a thing to remember, that most graceful and uncommon tree, dear to Alfred de Musset, the weeping-willow, being here seen to perfection.

    The approach to Brantôme recalls oriental stories, the ghoul-like and fairy element being here closely associated.  The limpid waters of the Dronne now reflect not only richest greenery and verdant banks, but between these lie strange dwellings, caverns hewn into habitable shape.  No monsters, however, live in them; instead, the quietest, most affable peasant folk imaginable tenant these maisons troglodytes, fantastic suburb of a fantastic little city.

    Next, a perspective of Italian aspect bursts upon the eye.  To our right rises the wide façade of the ancient Benedictine' abbey, above it towering a lofty and ornate clock-tower; to our left a promenade, bordered by a balustrade and flanked by two picturesque old gateways, overlooks the river, thrice-bridged silvery stream winding between old-world streets and luxuriant gardens; whilst before us lies the scattered toweling with its one family hotel, framing-in the whole, wooded heights and purple hills, the glorious September sky heightening every charm.

    Brantôme may be examined as a picture or a map, so compact is this island-town and its sweet environment, so closely and symmetrically does one feature neighbour its fellow.  A perfect picture it is, restful to the eye in colour and outline, yet provoking curiosity and striking the imagination with a sense of absolute novelty.  Externally, Brantôme may be indeed pronounced unique.  Unwillingly travellers will quit the sunshine for the purpose of archaeological exploration, here antiquities yielding in attractiveness to a general view, the harmonious grouping of contrasted objects, nature and art together forming a chef-d'œuvre.  Like Souvigny in the Allier and La Charité-sur-Loire in the Nièvre, the town has grown round an abbatial foundation, the origin of its importance and wealth being purely ecclesiastical.  The monks of the olden time lived after the manner of feudal lords within their own walls and city gates, and well did they know how to choose a site.  The island-town of Brantôme gave them all they wanted, a fertile soil, sheltered aspect, water in abundance, and seclusion from the world.

    The grand old campanile said to date from Charlemagne's time, the abbey church and wide façade of the ancient monastery, form the principal objects in the scene before us, every other feature being subsidiary.  Herein, indeed, is the history of Brantôme symbolised, in itself nothing, its ecclesiastical foundation all in all.

    High above church and abbey towers the lofty and ornate clock-tower, Brantôme's crowning glory.  It is separated from the church by a deep cleft in the rock or precipice, whilst the church itself appears to form part of the rock on to which it is built.

    Singularity ever allied with charm characterises every feature of this strange little island-town.  Thus the lofty campanile may be described as an anomaly; like the enchanted prince of the Black Isles, half stone, half man, this tower is half tower and half rock, its highly decorated stages of a hundred feet resting on a rocky base of the same height, the upper portion only being visible.

    'Consummate art,' writes M. Viollet-Leduc, 'is shown in the proportions and construction of this tower.'  In 1373 it was admirably repaired by an architect before-mentioned, M. Abadie.

    The fine eleventh-century abbey church adjoins the wide handsome facade of the ancient Benedictine monastery now used as a mairie and museum.  Both have been restored, but without destroying the original stamp, and with the campanile form a most imposing group or centre-piece to Brantôme regarded as a picture.  In that light we cannot help regarding it.

    Flanking all three and stretching beyond are lofty parapets of rock, bristling with brushwood and tapestried with green; the lower portions have been caverned and adorned with quaint bas-relief and sculptures.

    As I always object to making a toil of pleasure and am the most incurious traveller alive, I left these grottoes and galleries unvisited.  Some future wayfarer in the Périgord will doubtless repair the omission.

    Half a century ago the cloisters of the abbey existed, although fast crumbling to decay.  In 1859 a French writer described this portion of the abbey as 'sombre, mysterious as death itself.'  On passing within we are seized with involuntary trembling, an emotion partaking neither of fear nor horror but of secret misgiving.  Alone here on a dusky evening we seem to be in a cemetery; the hoarse cries of night-birds, the mournful dripping of water from the roof add to the horror.  The darkness, shadows, and wind-sounds seem to announce something supernatural.  It seems as if any moment, from the depths around, ghosts might arise from their graves.  So awful indeed was the gloom of those dark galleries that they are said to have suggested the operatic scenery of Robert le Diable, a Parisian stage manager having come hither in search of suggestions for the first representation.

    Following the promenade with the palatial stone balustrade, we reach the twin gateways, worthy porticoes of this dainty little realm.  Most elegant are both, but the one is so massive and sober in detail, the other so graceful, lightsome, and ornate as to suggest a sex in architecture, an idea of janitor and janitrix in the builder's mind.  Just below these remains of the ancient fortification, we reach an old stone bridge, which seems suddenly to have changed its mind, out of sheer caprice darting off at a tangent.  This is the pont coudé, or elbowed bridge, aptly so called, its configuration resembling that of a bent arm.  The elbowed bridge, restored in 1775, was built by the monks in order to get at their vegetable gardens on a lower level; market gardens covering the area are still called les jardins des Pères.

    From this part we make the circuit of the little town which at every point is suburban and at every point recalls its insularity.  Here the mellow leafage of vegetables, the soft tints of blue sky and rippling stream make charming, Italian-like pictures.  Indeed, from every side Brantôme reminds us of ancient little Italian towns.  No trace is there here of commonplaceness or vulgarity; and the ineffable sense of repose!—the little steam tramway, running through the town twice a day, speaks of the outer world and of the universal modernisation going on elsewhere.  For in these captivating nooks and corners of provincial France we seldom anathematise the speculative builder.  At Brantôme several mediæval houses offer tempting subjects to the artist, whilst their romantic position sets them off to the best possible advantage.  Perhaps, indeed, a little more enterprise in the matter of bricks and mortar would be welcomed by the most fervent æsthete.  Here, for instance, the fine old parish church has been turned into a market-hall; used for the purposes of public worship until the restoration of the abbey church in 1875, it was then desecrated.  One church, therefore, suffices for a population of two thousand five hundred souls, but it seems a thousand pities that marketers could not have been accommodated elsewhere, and that a building of real architectural value and interest should not be put in the category of public monuments.

    If here we may fleet it carelessly as in the golden age, so here like Falstaff' we may take our ease at our inn.  There is only one hostelry in the place, the Grand Hotel, or Hôtel Chabrol of provincial celebrity.  As far as passing travellers could judge, a most comfortable house is this big, airy, spick and span inn, its doors thrown invitingly open, its landlady buxom, blithe, and debonair, ever ready for a chat, its exquisitely clean bedrooms and aldermanic table to be had for five francs a day.  Natural products of all kinds—fish, flesh, fowl, and fruit—are superabundant in this little El Dorado.  For two francs per head we fared upon trout, partridge—the month was September—and had the offer of too many dishes to remember, our hostess and her daughter seeing to our comfort in every particular.

    A hundred yards from this hotel is a lovely walk by the Dronne.  Under the splendid avenue of lime-trees one might spend whole summer days, so soothing the gentle ripple, so exquisite the reflection of the pellucid waves.  It is wonderful how much the beauty of French scenery depends upon these small rivers.  Varied in hue, each winding through a different landscape, each embellishing a little world of its own, tutelar genius of some pastoral region, these streams and their affluents lend no less charm than the great historic waterways, the 'chemins qui marchent,' as Michelet calls them.  And sweet as any are the Dronne and the Corrèze that so caressingly encircle Brantôme.

    But the numerous rambles and excursions within easy reach offer very varied interest.  While some spots are ideally pastoral, others are wild and even savage.  Ten minutes' walk from the starting-point of the tram brings you to a dolmen, one of those strange pierres-levées so-called, or table of rock resting upon columns, by no means confined to Brittany, 'the land of the Druid.'  In another direction you come upon a natural parapet, lofty cliffs recalling the sublime scenery of Fontainebleau forest.  Yet again, and you find yourself under the shadow of serried alder-trees, at your feet the river set with tiny wooded islets, a sylvan scene of flawless peace and beauty.

    That great authority Joanne, indeed, pronounces the valley of the Dronne to be not only the prettiest in the department, but perhaps in all western France.

    Brantôme, like all French towns, has historic interest, and like many is linked with the history of national literature.  Returning to the promenade facing the abbey church, standing on its western point we are on the site of the vanished château in which the titular abbot of Brantôme, Pierre de Bourdeilles, penned his famous memoirs.

    Brantôme, or Branthôme as some authorities [p.124] call him, was, as one might well suppose, a Gascon, endowed with all the traditionary loquaciousness and proneness to talk of himself.  What we know about his life and character inspires liking not unmixed with respect.  Prosper Mérimée has happily hit off his portrait in a sentence: 'Brantôme was a gentleman (un homme comme il faut), or what was understood by the term in his own age.  Owing to birth, position, and character,' he adds, 'he was thrown among the most noteworthy personages of his time, and his wit, high spirits, and loyalty made him a general favourite.  Hence his unrivalled opportunities, and hence his authority in the manners and customs of the sixteenth century.'  The term un homme comme il faut of course could apply in those days to the Cyrano de Bergerac, D'Artagnan, swash-buckler type as to men of a quieter order.  The author of the so-called Chroinque Scandaleuse never got adventure enough; his career, until stricken down by infirmity, was one perpetual running to and fro in search of blood and battle.

    The substitution of Brantôme for his patronymic illustrates the feudal nature of the French Church at that period.  Pierre de Bourdeilles was sixteen when, on the death of his brother at the siege of Hesdin, Henri II. named him abbé commendataire, or titular abbot, 3,000 livres [p.125] being attached to the fief.

    Henceforth we hear of him at various courts and serving under chief after chief.  Strange as it may seem, even in those days of civil and European wars his entire career as a free lance proved a disillusion.  Ill luck dogged his footsteps.  He was invariably a little too soon or a little too late for some brilliant enterprise or famous encounter.  There is something more than serio-comic, there is a touch of pathos in such a story; it recalls that immortal home-coming which should have been performed on a chariot drawn in mid-air by gryphons, but which was instead a jolting over rough and familiar roads in an ox-wagon.

    In 1559 the seigneur abbot of Brantôme, now a dashing soldier, figured in the brilliant Neapolitan court and was a frequenter of a no less brilliant salon than that of Marie d'Aragon, Marquise del Vasto, celebrated in her time alike for her wit and her beauty.  A year or two later we find him in the suite of Mary Queen of Scots; he accompanied her on her ill-fated journey to Leith, and afterwards travelled to London, where he was enchanted by the beauty and lofty bearing of Elizabeth.  He next attached himself to the Duke of Guise, and being an orthodox, but by no means bigoted Catholic, joined the League, distinguishing himself at the sieges of Bourges, Blois, and Rouen, and at the battle of Dreux.  After the assassination of his patron he entered the service of Henri d'Orléans, later Henri III.  As a gentilhomme du roi, or lord in waiting, of that unworthiest of unworthy Valois kings, he received wages amounting to 600 livres yearly.  In those days the pay alike of courtiers and civil magnates were called gages, or wages, as distinct from the solde, or pay, of soldiers.  The highest as well as the humblest functionary received wages.

    Later, Brantôme was despatched to Madrid where the French wife of Philip II. received him with effusion, overjoyed to chat with a countryman.  Always agog for war, the seigneur abbot during the next few years eagerly caught at every opportunity of losing an arm, a leg, or his life.  So insatiable indeed was his passion for hazard and excitement, that, finding himself in middle life sound of limb and without any military position, as he thought, commensurate with his deserts or any likelihood of being thus rewarded in the future, he meditated a perilous leap, in other words, the sacrifice of honour and nationality.

    The word patriot had not as yet been invented; in its actual acceptation being first used by Voltaire. [p.127]  With the fortunes of war, soldiers frequently changed not only their chiefs but their colours.  To Brantôme as to many another of his time, provided he sniffed powder and found himself in good company, the matter of flag was quite secondary.  So embittered was his proud spirit by what he considered neglect and ingratitude, that he seems to have decided upon no less a step than that of offering secret services to the King of Spain.  Fate intervened.  The generous harum-scarum was saved from dishonour and literature was enriched by an accident.  Whilst still in the prime of life, he had just seen his fifty-fourth birthday, he mounted a piebald, that is to say, an ill-omened horse—we are assured that even in these days the superstition remains—and was overthrown.  The animal fell heavily upon him, breaking both thigh-bones.  For four years he lay in bed, and to the end of his days remained a cripple and a suffering invalid, the tedium of inactivity being relieved by his pen and a succession of lawsuits.  In litigation he seems to have taken as keen a delight as in battles and sieges.  One feature of this long and painful confinement to his island-town throws pleasant light on family life.  He is said to have been tenderly cared for by his sister-in-law, a widow of that brother killed at Hesdin just upon thirty years before.  On the other hand, Prosper Mérimée mischievously insinuates that if Madame de Bourdeilles watched over her infirm relation, the seigneur abbot as keenly guarded her affairs, preventing her from contracting a second marriage and thereby keeping the property together.  The two positions are not, however, incompatible.

    Brantôme lived to be eighty; long before his death having been forgotten by his contemporaries and the world.  The celebrated memoirs were not published till almost half a century later, and then in a fragmentary condition only.  Full of originality, wit, charm, also of coarseness, these chronicles faithfully mirror the times in which the writer lived.  Modern research, moreover, has greatly enhanced the historic value of Brantôme's works.  It has been shown by research that he relied on authentic French, Spanish, and Italian sources for his statements of facts lying outside personal experience, and despite his unblushing gauloiseries no student of French history can afford to pass him by.

    Here are one or two extracts, rendered into English.  He is describing Marguerite de Valois as she appeared in full splendour at Blois, and the peroration may almost be set beside Burke's immortal sentence on Marie Antoinette.  The future Queen of Navarre had proceeded to church on the occasion of Easter—

'At sight of this procession we forgot our devotions, delighting more in the contemplation of this divine princess than of holy things, and deeming that thereby we committed no sin, since the adorer of heavenly beauty on earth cannot surely offend the Celestial Power, its Creator.'

    A high compliment is here paid to the royal ladies of his time—

'A point I have noticed, with many great personages, both men and ladies of the Court, that generally speaking, the daughters of the house of France have always excelled and still excel either in goodness, wit, grace, or generosity, and have been in all things very accomplished, and in confirmation of this, not instancing those of ancient or former times, but of those we have known or heard of from our parents or grandparents.'

    In a sentence he gives the key to his own character and success as a writer of memoirs—

'I was often with him [Montluc] for he loved me greatly, and was much pleased when I put him in the humour to be questioned; I was never so young but that I had the utmost anxiety to learn.  He, seeing me in that disposition, responded willingly and in choice language, for he was very eloquent' (il avait une fort belle éloquence).

    Nor can I refrain from citing this eulogium of the great Chancellor, Michel de l'Hôpital, that anticipator of moral ideas to come, whose whole life was a struggle for religious liberty, and who, although a Catholic living in a time of fiercest theological conflicts, promulgated the first edict of tolerance known in the western world.

    'De l'Hôpital,' writes Brantôme, 'has been the greatest, most learned, most dignified, and most large-minded (universal) Chancellor, France ever had.  In his person lived another Cato the Censor, one who knew well how to censure and correct a corrupt society.  With his long white beard, his pale visage, his austere expression, he might have sat for a portrait of St. Jerome.  Thus indeed some folks called him at court.  To sum up; on his death his enemies could not dispute this praise, that he was the greatest man ever holding, or who will ever hold, the same position; so I have heard them say, always all the same maligning him as a Huguenot'—which indeed Catherine de Medicis' great Chancellor was not.  But he was the author of the edict of Romorantin, he countenanced the Protestantism of his wife and daughter, and he had uttered the memorable speech: 'Away with those diabolical names, watchwords of partisanship and sedition, Huguenots, Lutherans, Papists; let us only keep the name of Christians!'  The massacre of Saint Bartholomew broke his heart.

    The island-town figured in the religious wars, and one episode in its history redounds to the honour of Coligny and also of the seigneur abbot.  Although a partisan of the Guises, Brantôme was on friendly terms with the great Huguenot Admiral.  At the approach of Coligny's forces in 1569, the population trembled not only for their possessions but for their lives.  Cruel reprisals and unspeakable privations on both sides had rendered the soldiers ferocious.  It seemed as if the hour of doom was at hand.  But Coligny enforced a truce upon his followers, who were received rather as friends than foes.  Alike abbey and town were respected, and the raggèd troops passed out of the place, poor as they had come.  Not a loaf of bread had been taken by force.  Henry of Navarre, then a lad of sixteen, was on this occasion lodged in the château.

    Pleasant was a vacation holiday in this delightful spot, summer hours dreamed away amid 'places of nestling green for poets made,' no sound breaking the stillness but the notes of birds and the purling of quiet streams.  Farther afield, wild, romantic sites await the hardy pedestrian, umbrageous solitudes, rocky defiles, silvery cascades.  And everywhere is felt that hardly attained, enchanting sense of aloofness from everyday things, an escape from daily repetition and a world without surprises!




AS Brantôme is reached by way of Périgueux and as this city of itself is worth the journey from Paris, I add these descriptive pages.  The capital of Périgord and chef-lieu of the Dordogne lies within a few hours of Limoges and Angoulême on the Orleans railway.

    We rub our eyes as we get the first view of its grand cathedral, cupolas, and minarets towering above the ancient town and verdant environments.  East and west suddenly brought into juxtaposition, a Saint Sophia rising in central France!

    When, having quitted the railway, we stand under the shadow of that mighty dome, we almost expect to hear the Muezzin's call, 'Allah is great, praise be to Allah!'  We seem to be in a second Constantinople.

    How came it about that such a structure should have been raised here.  By what caprice were French builders moved to raise a mosque for Catholic worshippers?

    If however at first sight the St. Front recalls the church of the Holy Wisdom, on closer examination we discern more resemblance to St. Mark's of Venice.  A nearer inspection shows that this second similarity is much slighter than we at first supposed.  Some authorities indeed consider the Périgourdin cathedral to be the older of the two.

    The general arrangement of both suggests an unmistakable Byzantine origin.  It seems moreover that St. Front and St. Mark were constructed on the plan of the church of the Holy Apostles erected by Justinian at Constantinople, and afterwards replaced by a mosque.  A full description is found in Procopius and, according to authorities, the Byzantine historians, at Venice and Périgueux we have edifices raised upon a similar plan.

    A French writer has pointed out that whilst in design St. Front recalls St. Mark, in construction great essential differences are found.  The masonry of the latter recalls Roman methods as seen in the baths of Caracalla, walls and domes being built of rubble and cement and the outer surface surmounted with marble, gold, and mosaic.  St. Front, on the contrary, is built of stone, blocks being superimposed, one on the other, with great technical skill and the undecorated surface remaining austerely simple.  The two buildings differ in other respects.  Following Roman tradition St. Mark has round arches and spherical cupolas; St. Front, on the contrary, has ogive arches and ovoid domes.  The exact dates are of little moment.  The interesting point to note is that of Byzantine origin as suggested by the arrangement of pendentives and cupolas. [p.135]

    St. Front occupies the site of a Latin basilica of the sixth or seventh century, parts of which remain.  The lofty clock-tower or minaret is said to be the only one of its kind, i.e. pure Byzantine, in existence.  Externally the cathedral looks as if quite recently built, the whole having been re-surfaced for the sake of uniformity.  Within, an almost total absence of decoration immensely heightens the grandiose effect.

    The influence of this cathedral in Périgord, the neighbouring province of the Angouois, and indeed throughout France was considerable; round arches and domes being followed by great church builders.

    Périgueux may be described as tripartite, even quadripartite.  It possesses three distinct aspects, the Roman, the mediaeval, and the modern, with traces of the Gallic.

    Following a suburban road that winds leftward from the cathedral we exchange Oriental and Venetian for classic associations, thus taking a backward leap of many ages.



    Before us, from the flat landscape, suddenly rises a lofty stone rotunda recalling the Tomb of Cecilia Metella.  But the name of this monument commemorates an epoch anterior to the Roman occupation of Gaul.  Vesuna was the ancient capital of a Gallic tribe, the Petrocorii or Petrogorici, hence Périgord.  And in Celtic times Vesuna was a busy commercial city much frequented by Phoenician traders from Marseilles, thus forcibly and constantly are we re-reminded of the immense antiquity, the palimpsest upon palimpsest of French civilisation!

    This tour de Véone stands on what was the centre of the Gallo-Roman city.  Several theories concerning it have been propounded.  According to some authorities the massive circular tower was a tomb, according to others, the principal part or cella of a temple.

    This superb monument has been rudely shattered, doubtless during the religious wars that devastated Périgueux in the sixteenth century.  The walls, six feet thick, are a wonderful specimen of Roman masonry.  A little farther on we reach a small beautifully kept public garden.  Here amid flower-beds and shrubberies stands another Gallo-Roman ruin, the imposing remains of an amphitheatre.

    Further still, we come upon a ruined sixteenth-century chateau which was built upon a Roman basement, the modern portions being incorporated into Roman brickwork, the most singular travesty imaginable.

    The Petrocorii were a valiant patriotic people, and had every other Gallic tribe displayed a similar spirit, Cæsar's campaign might have ended very differently.  When shut up in Alesia the noble chief Vercingetorix made a final appeal to his countrymen, and the Petrocorii despatched five thousand men to his succour.

    'It was a great misfortune for France and also for humanity in general,' writes a French historian, [p.138] 'that Gallic civilisation, naturally incomplete but so curious and original, should have thus been destroyed.  Caesar's conquest imposed upon us Latin civilisation, our ancestors being prevented from showing what they could have effected by native genius stimulated from without.'

    Mediaeval Périgueux, the Périgueux of Montaigne, is fully realised when, having turned our back upon the ancient Vesuna, we stroll towards the river, none sweeter in these many-river'd regions, none surely with so whimsical a name!  So at least l'Isle, the island, sounds in our ears.

    'I would rather at a venture find myself second, or third, at Périgueux,' wrote the illustrious Périgourdin, 'than first in Paris,' and Montaigne showed no lack of taste.  The merchant princes of this city had mansions hardly less sumptuous than that of Jacques Coeur at Bourges, and from their windows enjoyed a much fairer prospect.  These mediaeval burghers wisely chose the quays as a place of residence, having before their eyes the wide, clear-flowing river, alongside sunny banks, gardens, and summer-houses; beyond these, richly-cultivated open champaign, framing-in all, gentle rises, and distant hills.

    This promenade is enchanting: on one side we have the ancient city walls, cathedral, and ornate dwellings of the olden time; on the other, limpid water reflecting a lovely environment, the mellow tones and delicate gradations of colour recalling Venetian scenes.  Many of the splendid old houses bordering the quays have fallen into decay, but one remains which it is hoped will ere too late be classified under the head of monument historique, and in consequence protected.  It is a sumptuous building with lofty pointed roof having richly ornamented dormer windows and, under those of the second story, a massive coping supporting a balcony.  Looking like a separate dwelling but in reality a wing of the same, is a second façade with similar roof, having in front the daintiest little piazza imaginable, two-storied, with slender columns and elegant balustrade, both now tapestried with creeping plants.  Who held his state in this most fascinating dwelling?  History is mute.  The place is simply known as 'the house by the river.'  From this sunny promenade, steep, gloomy little streets or rather stairs lead to the ancient quarters grouped around the cathedral and more circuitously to the modern town.  Wide, airy boulevards adorned with statues, handsome public buildings and well set out shop-fronts attest the prosperity of modern Périgueux.

    Neither Montaigne nor Fénelon, the gentle author of Télémaque, was born in the capital of Périgord, but each has his statue here.  And, of course, a military hero is commemorated also—what French town is without its martial monument?—Marshal Bugeaud (1784-1849), a provincial celebrity.  It would indeed be hard, perhaps impossible, to find a statueless town, no matter how insignificant.  Until the Revolution such a monument remained a royal prerogative.  No wonder that a veritable forest of statues has sprung up under the Third Republic!

    Apparently few English tourists find their way to Périgueux.  The hotel accommodation, at least such as a friend and myself found it a few years ago, sufficiently makes this fact clear.  Modernisation, however, I learn, is finding this charming old town out, and future travellers will doubtless fare better than ourselves.  The department of the Dordogne abounds in historic and romantic sites and is watered by three beautiful rivers, the Dordogne, the Corrèze, and the Isle.


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