THE Alps of Dauphiné abound in picturesque scenery and scenes, but there is no single spot among them that possesses more of what one may call manysided picturesqueness than that tiny shelf on the mountain-side, high up among the peaks and precipices of one of the wildest of rocky regions, that veritable oasis in the desert, which is the goal of the famous pilgrimage of Our Lady of La Salette.
The way thither from civilization is hardly less picturesque than the spot itself. Taking Grenoble for a startingpoint, we first proceed by railway (twelve miles) through the beautiful valley of the Drac, with mountains not only on each side, but behind and even before us, to St. George de Commiers, where we change for the line of La Mure, and if possible seat ourselves in an open or “ observation ” carriage.
Then immediately we begin to climb the mountain (eighteen hundred feet) through a series of loop and double-loop tunnels, which are more remarkable — because the area that incloses them is much more contracted — than those of the St. Gotthard. And when the line emerges from them at successive elevations, it follows the very edge of a giddy precipice, at times literally suspended at a height of from eight hundred to one thousand feet above the valley of the Drac, now narrowed to a mere gorge.
With every hundred feet, too, that we ascend, the surrounding mountains become more distinct and more interesting ; for if we are already lovers of Dauphiné, each one of these peaks is a dear, familiar friend. Away to the north is the group of the Grande Chartreuse, the stately summits of the Dent de Crolles and the Chamecliaude towering aloft precisely where they are needed to form an impressive background. Then toward the south is the huge obelisk of the Mont Aiguille, and at the west the long chain which stretches from the Mouclierotte to the Moucherolle.
Soon we have passed the venerable château of La Motte, with its forests and healing waters, and, following the broad table-land, arrive at the station of La Mure, where huge breaks are waiting to help us forward on our way. First of all, we are conveyed to the Hôtel Pelloux, near by, for lunch. And then — but before we have had time either to do justice to Madame Pelloux’s excellent cooking, or to seize the striking points of our fellow-travelers, who are chiefly “ pious pilgrims,” and from every part of the Old and New Worlds — the drivers call to us to take our seats again. If the time is July or August, we take them with the utmost alacrity, for during those months there are usually more passengers than places for them in the vehicles.
Then follows a four hours’ drive through the upper valley of the Drac, — past several of those curious pyramidal mountains so characteristic of Dauphiné, which always seem as if they had been cast in Titanic moulds and then turned out upon the plain, — to Corps, or Corpse, as it is called by the inhabitants, a pronunciation which, by the way, is considered exceedingly pretty !
Here other breaks are waiting, and into them we and our luggage are transferred, or rather should be transferred ; for one must keep a sharp lookout upon one’s belongings at this particular moment, otherwise half of them will be left for a more convenient season. But the wise and prudent among travelers do not go heavily laden to La Salette ; they know by experience that on such a journey unnecessary articles are apt to become white elephants of the most elephantine proportions.
Now we are in a smaller break, and we set out with two most uninterestinglooking horses, which nevertheless arouse considerable interest on our part, because we cannot imagine how they are to drag us up any, even the most gradual, ascent. However, they do manage to get us out of Corps by something that is less a street than a cleft between two lines of houses, and then by a little road which follows the edge of the gorge, the very narrowest route carrossable I have ever driven over. Here the mountain is luxuriantly wooded, and all is very peaceful ; there is no suggestion of what is to come, except that the road looks as if it may end abruptly against one of the precipitous shoulders which every turn brings nearer.
Just before reaching the village of La Salette (which we ignorantly had supposed to be identical with Nôtre Dame de La Salette), three additional horses are attached to our break; but we are so absorbed in looking at the “ mountains of the pilgrimage,” now immediately above us, the terrible face of the Gargas marked midway by horizontal lines (a whisper beside us says that one of them is our road), — we are so taken up by all this, that we do not reflect upon the significance of five horses attached to a small and very light vehicle until it is too late to get out; for being women, we cannot spring to the ground while the break is in motion.
Several of our fellow-travelers, wiser than ourselves, and more dévot also, for they are veritable pilgrims, decided some time ago to make the remainder of the way on foot; the others, who are feeble, aged persons, unfit to walk, say their chapelet in the break. And this is the first service of our quinzaine.
Presently the road, or what is called so by courtesy, over which we have been driving from Corps comes to an end, as we had thought it might. Not, however, against any insuperable barrier of rock or precipice ; it ceases simply because it has not been laid out any further. But this fact does not arrest our progress. On the contrary, we go on faster than before ; for the horses, vehemently urged forward, dash up the steep hillside over something which is hardly wider than a mule-path, here encumbered with a quantity of loose stones, there passing over ledges of slate worn so smooth by the constant traffic that it seems as if no footing could be found upon them. Often the inner wheels of the break are high on the sloping ledge, while the outer ones are down in an uneven gully, and there is not a semblance of protection on the side nearest the precipice. Our driver’s reins are attached to two only of the five horses, and, according to the custom of the country, a little boy runs on in front to whip and guide the others.
A very sharp turn is made, and then it is a relief to see that the horses are being brought to a standstill, for the driver tells us there is a steeper bit beyond, and “all the world ” must walk for a time. I, for one, decide not to mount the vehicle again, preferring “ nature’s tandem,” for such an absolutely unprotected road, to any Dauphiné arrangement of horses. And so, going on in advance, I ascend the steep bit, wind round with the windings of the gorge, skirt the nearly perpendicular grass slopes of the Côtebelle, follow the horizontal line (which we saw from below) cut in the rocky face of the Gargas and just now rendered really dangerous by the rolling down of great stones from the quarry above, and reach Our Lady of La Salette nearly an hour before the break.
One ought to say here, for the benefit of those who do not know the place even by hearsay, that previous to 1846, the year of the reputed miracle which excited so much controversy in the ecclesiastical and religions world, what is now called the “ holy mountain ” was a totally uninhabited region. Only a sheep path led to it, and it was unvisited save by the shepherds and herdsmen, who at midsummer drove their flocks to its green pastures. But now, upon this little plateau, more than five thousand feet above the sea and close to the scene of the “apparition,” as it is called, there is a group of substantial buildings, in the centre a really noble church ; on one side the seminary and school, with a hostelry for men ; and on the other that for women. When I add that of late years as many as eighty thousand persons have taken part in a single festival, some notion may be gained of the veneration with which the spot is regarded by “ the people.”
Its surroundings are very striking, almost majestic, in their wildness and utter solitariness. The eminence against which the buildings nestle is green, and so is the Col which they face ; but on neither of them is there a single tree or shrub, — only the rude cross which marks the summit of every elevation hereabouts, while the long line of peaks which form the horizon on the right are as gaunt and barren as the Gargas on the left. On every side are precipices so nearly perpendicular, so tremendous in their depth, that one has the horrible feeling of not being exactly on terra firma. I have known persons so oppressed by this feeling at La Salette that they were unable to rest at night, dreaming again and again that their beds were suspended over a frightful abyss, and not daring to move by even a hair’s breadth, lest they should he precipitated into its depths.
Those are fortunate pilgrims who arrive, as we did, with the evening caravan, for I think the mountain of Our Lady is never so impressive as at the first still hours of twilight, when the glow and color of sunset have just faded front the circle of peaks, and the mystery of night already broods over the valley. And then, immediately, while one is still awed by the aspect of the outer world, comes the evening service, which at La Salette is peculiarly striking, especially when it is the first that one attends.
The congregation itself is remarkable, made up as it is of the “ missionaries,” the sisters, the schoolboys (who lead the responses and do the greater part of the singing), the entire company of pilgrims, both men and women, the drivers who have brought one up from Corps, the masons who have been at work all day upon the buildings (now being enlarged), and even the men who are mending the road and quarrying the stone on the mountainside.
Then the church is entirely without lights, except for the six lamps suspended before the high altar, and the tapers which burn, here and there, at some favorite shrine; for the service is the Evening Prayer (said in French) and the Litany of the Virgin, and as the worshipers know every word of both by heart, there is little need to look at hooks. Even the hymns seemed to be familiar to nearly everyone present. All were in French, and sung to the most popular of tunes ; indeed, I have never been in a Roman Church where the worship is so emphatically congregational.
At the close of the litany there is a single petition to “ Notre Dame de La Salette, Réconciliatrice des pêcheurs.” and then one of the fathers goes into the pulpit, carrying a lighted taper. This is in order that he may read the long lists of requests sent, in that day for the prayers of the faithful: “ Un prêtre et sa paroisse, une école laïcisée, la conversion d’un père de famille, les intentions de plusieuvs personnes, une famille vivenient éprouvée, une guérison,” etc.
Afterwards come the usual petitions for the benefactors of the church, for the country and its rulers, the army and navy, the séminaristes-soldats, the Lord’s Prayer and an Ave are said, the taper is blown out, and the sermon follows.
This is usually something very simple, and within the comprehension of the most ignorant person present, an exhortation founded on some part of the Virgin’s message, “ Si mon peuple ne veut pas se sonmettre, je serai forcée de laisser tomber le bras de mon Fils,” or one of her reproaches, “ Je suis chargée de prier sans cesse, et vous autres vous ne faites pas ca.” For one sees here Mariolatry at its height. Our Lord seems to have been removed to an infinite distance, and the Virgin Mother is the all-powerful mediatrix, through whom alone we may venture to approach him.
At nine o’clock service and sermon are ended, and as we reënter the hostelry candles are handed to us, and we are reminded that absolute quiet is now enjoined.
Day begins betimes at La Salette. At half past four the first hell is rung, for the sisters and most of the pilgrims attend the earliest mass, at five o’clock. Breakfast follows at half past seven, and as the refectory is open for one hour only, no one is tempted to be late. On great festivals, high mass is said at ten o’clock, otherwise there is a short respite from services. The schoolboys are then taken to walk by one of the fathers, or if there is work to he done, — haymaking or unloading of materials for the buildings, — it is they who do it, and a most healthy change it must be from their nearly unbroken round of religious duties.
This, too, is the time usually chosen by visitors for a close inspection of the church, whose fittings and ornaments, no less than its walls, are well worthy of notice. The beautiful carved pulpit which was a gift from Belgium ; the high altar of Carrara marble, with exquisite bas-reliefs of the miracle; the jeweled ostensoir and chalice, into which are wrought the heirlooms of many families ; the wonderful missal, whose binding alone cost the Comte de Pennalven nine hundred francs, and occupied one workman during three years, — not one of these should he passed over by persons who care for beautiful things.
A striking fact in connection with the church is that not one sou out of the three millions of francs thus far expended upon the mere fabric has been asked for. There are no quêtes at the service, and nothing under any circumstances is charged for seats; the entire sum has been made up from the free-will offerings of “ the faithful.
At eleven o’clock, whenever the weather is favorable, an account of the miracle is given on the very spot of its supposed occurrence. Then the scene is most picturesque and curious. On the steep slopes on both sides of the ravine where Melanie and Maximin were resting when they saw the “ White Lady,” statues have been placed to represent the three scenes of the occurrence : the Virgin seated on a stone, her head bowed in her hands, in an agony of sorrow, as she first attracted the attention of the children ; then, as she stood to deliver her message ; and, again, at the highest point, where she bade them farewell, and, “ august and beautiful,” ascended into the clouds. And around these statues, which are exceedingly effective, the Chemin de la croix has been constructed.
When the hour for the narration of the occurrence sounds, there is usually a great concourse of pilgrims, who either seat themselves on the rude steps, or lean against the railings which protect the sacred spot. Among them are representatives of many nationalities, as well as of nearly every class and condition of life : priests, barefooted friars, officers in dazzling uniforms, ladies in dainty Parisian costumes, gayly attired peasants, and religieuses with their endless variety of coifs and guimpes. The priest stands below, close to the holy spring which is said never to have failed since the eventful day (September 39, 1846), and when the Lord’s Prayer and one Hail Mary have been said, he begins his story, recounting the most minute details concerning the children, and dwelling upon the several points of the Virgin’s message, after the manner of a last-century commentator.
Meanwhile, pilgrims who are going away by the noonday conveyance, and who probably have had no other moment of leisure, descend to the spring with jars and bottles in which to carry the water to the sick and dying at their own homes (the annals of La Salette are one long list of marvelous cures). They pass in and out among the listeners, stooping to fill their vessels, and then kneeling reverently before the weeping Virgin, in thankfulness for her bestowal of what they believe to he the water of life. The effect of this atmosphere so intensely devotional, so charged with faith in the miraculous, is very strange. One’s ordinary mental experiences, even the affairs of every-day life, become unreal and intangible, so that it is with a sort of shock, as when one is wakened from a mesmeric sleep, that on reëntering the hostelry our London and Paris newspapers are handed to us, and we see the usual headlines concerning the Home Rule Bill and the French elections.
Sometimes the account of the “ apparition ” is followed by a procession, which winds round and round upon the mountain-side, the pilgrims carrying some of the exquisitely embroidered banners, of which there are so many in the church, and singing the Litany of the Virgin. I was never tired of watching these processions from my window, and though too far away to catch the words of the several petitions as sung by the priest, I could always hear the answering “ Ora pro nobis ; ” and now and then, when a turning in the path made the singers face me, coulil distinguish some of the more familiar ejaculations, — “ Virgo venerabilis, virgo fidelis,” or the solemn “ Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.”
Our daily life, notwithstanding its austere simplicity, was full of a certain picturesque charm which was not that of novelty alone. We grew accustomed to our tiny bedrooms, with their whitewashed walls and scanty furniture, and learned to keep them so tidy that they became almost attractive. It was no hardship to fill our own baths, for delicious spring water was to be had in every corridor, and immediately on our arrival we had persuaded the sœur chambrère to intrust us with two of the largest brocs that the bouse possessed.
In the beginning, our places were at the very end of the long table, among the most casual of the pilgrims, — simple folk, who were too busy to be absent many days from their farms and households. We liked hearing their stories of long journeys made, and obstacles overcome, to reach what to them was so sacred a place. I remember one family which had come up from the Valbonnais (on the other side of our Col, and some four thousand feet lower down) on a terrible evening, when the clouds suddenly descended and wrapped the whole chain of mountains in impenetrable mist.
These women had brought a guide with them as far as the Col; then, believing the way to be plain, had dismissed him. A few minutes later, they were in the clouds, and, as it seemed, hopelessly lost; for, instead of taking the downward path, which would have brought them in a short time to the hostelry, they had continued to ascend until they were upon one of the most dangerous slopes of the Gargas, and on this frightful incline — which I cannot even now think of without a shudder— they had wandered for hours, until, at last, getting into the bed of a torrent, they had wisely determined to descend with it; and so, near midnight, wet to the skin and well-nigh exhausted, they reached La Salette.
For a few days we had opposite us a number of Auvergne peasants, undoubtedly well-to-do, or they would not have been at the table d’hôte, but having about them a distinct suggestion of hay-fields and farmyards. There was little that was objectionable in their manners, and they were always polite in handing the dishes and in carving (for the carving and dressing of salad was done at the table, and by any one kind enough to undertake it), but they did not go as far as a sweet, simple - minded woman beside me, who was so much annoyed because my plate was not changed for each course — they are changed only three times at a meal — that she frequently carried it away and changed it herself.
Later on, we were moved to the upper end of the room, in the midst of the “ eeg-leef,” as we called it, according to that extraordinary pronunciation of high life, which I then heard for the first time. There we found ourselves among ladies of rank who were making their neuvaines, and gentle, high-bred sisters whose pilgrimage is their only respite from the weary round of hospital or schoolroom duties. The most attractive of them all was a Sœur de Saint Joseph, who, with her serene, mediæval face and straight coif, looked as if she had just stepped down from one of Cimabue’s canvases. We did not hear her name, but one felt that it must be Scholastique or Polycarpe. For some inexplicable reason the kind creature attached herself to me, and not only looked after all my wants at the table, but when she found me, one day, attempting to brush my mountain-boots, — a labor which visitors are expected to perform for themselves, — insisted upon taking them away and brushing them herself.
One morning, having asked a question of the sœur portière in regard to the lodging of the poorer pilgrims, we were given permission to inspect the whole hostelry as wc liked. So we made our way to the upper story of all, which we found entirely given up to dormitories; some holding a dozen beds, others only two or three. All were wonderfully clean and airy, with water brought into the rooms themselves, and not, as in our part of the building, into the corridors. Occupants of these dormitories pay but half a franc daily for their lodging, and may order what food they like from the kitchen, paying for each portion as they take it from the guichet. As they usually come provided with butter and bread and cheese and sausages, their pilgrimage cannot be very costly.
Indeed, our own pension was but five francs, and we could have any extra we wished — such as a mazagrand (black coffee) after dinner — by paying a small supplement, generally of twenty-five centimes. An amusing thing was that a pillow in one’s bedroom was considered an extra, and charged twenty-five centimes per week. These supplements must be paid when the things are ordered ; a wise provision, by the way, which saves the sistei’s from all the complications of bookkeeping.
Now and then, when the weather was unpropitious for walking, we used to vary our occupations by helping the two religieuses who look after the little shop, and who are often hard - pressed in serving the constant succession of visitors. We soon learned the prices of medals, seapularies, and all sorts of objects unfamiliar to us, and when peasants consulted us in regard to a present to take home to “ Monsieur le Curé,” or a Christ bien robuste, as they called a strongly made crucifix, we felt entirely competent to help them with our advice.
Only one unpleasant episode disturbed the tranquillity of my fortnight at La Salette. Though August had begun, the weather became bitterly cold, a northwest storm set in, and for five days, while the rain beat against our windowpanes, we saw no more of the outer world than if we had been in a storm at sea. At an evening service, when I unfortunately sat between the open door of the sacristy and a broken clerestory window (until that moment one of my chief comforts), I took a severe cold, and was obliged to keep my room and bed for several days, which would have been dreary enough but for the unremitting care of the sisters. The sœur portière — one of those nurses who, like the poets, are born, not made — prepared my poultices, and always found time to come herself and put them on ; the Superior — a charmingly sympathetic and human little person — brought me wonderful lozenges from her private store, and as soon as I was able to enjoy them paid me long visits, in the course of which I learned more than I fancy she meant me to learn of the hard life they lead : in the summer so often worked to the utmost limit of endurance ; and in the winter, when snowbound for four or five months, and when the fathers and the schoolboys have gone down to Corps, half - frozen and utterly solitary. The refectory sister brewed tisanes, and made extraordinary efforts to serve my meals hot, answering in her pretty cooing way, when I lamented over the number of pilgrims she had to serve, “ that she was bien contente to see so many, and that Our Lady was hien contente also.” And when, to add to my misfortunes, my watch refused to go, and had to be sent to Grenoble for repairs, the sweet Sceur Polycarpe insisted on lending me her own great old-fashioned silver one, because she thought “ the night would seem so much longer if I did not know the hour.”
The dear creatures even came to my rescue with a change of linen, when the faithless washerwoman failed to bring hack my own. I could hardly keep a straight face, as we say, when a collection of their curious mediæval garments was brought to me, and I was told to choose what I liked from among them. Some were so small, and of so remark able a shape, that to this day I have not the faintest notion for what they were intended; others were correspondingly voluminous. I naturally chose some of the latter, and am sure that the amusement I experienced in putting them on had no slight share in restoring my circulation, and so in helping forward my recovery.
But the return of fair weather, which released me from the confinement of my cell, and suggested all sorts of delightful but hitherto impossible expeditions, brought with it the realization that if we were to keep faith with old friends, we must tear ourselves away from new ones. And so, one day, the last farewells were spoken, and, having confided our packages to the good Casimir (the driver whom timorous travelers should always ask for at La Mure), we took our way on foot down the “ holy mountain,” back to the broad highways and commonplace scenes of ordinary life.
Anna Pierrepont Mcllvaine.