An Ancient French House
A TRAVELER in France who is on the lookout for what is secluded and indigenous could do nothing better than to journey eastward from Lyons until he reaches the small town of Belley. It is true that the ancient cathedral church was demolished in the nineteenth century to be replaced by the white modern building that at present is a conspicuous feature of the upland valley. But the sleepy market town retains still an atmosphere of the past. Many of the houses in its main streets were built in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. I have been admitted through a modest doorway to enter an interior with beautiful passages, white and arched, like those of a wine cellar — passages that give glimpses through narrow, ancient doorways of hidden gardens, heavy with the damp foliage of sun-sheltered flowers and trees. Also, if one walks outside the town, it is possible to imagine that the old city walls are still standing, so compact, so closely built together, are the houses that border the open meadows. The reiterated calling of the peasants, as they encourage and direct their yoked oxen, can be heard by the shop people in the main streets, by the children playing at leapfrog in the rue de Baron and in the rue St.-Martin. Indeed, a wayfarer who explores the country in the vicinity of Belley will gradually realize that he has at last reached the France of his imagination, the France that was before the Great War, before Napoleon’s wars, before the religious wars. The appearance and the manners of the countryside belong to the Middle Ages. Still up and down the stony lanes oxen drag forward small, lumbering carts of mediæval design. Still the wide valley is dotted with women, with old men, and with children standing sentinel, with an infinite patience, through the long hours, over their few head of cattle. A fence, any kind of protection, would relieve them of their year-long, their century-long, task, but in this district, known as the Bugey, innovations come slowly. The ancestors of these people spent their time knitting in the sun and turning their errant sandy-colored cows toward the pasturage allotted them — and for what reason should their descendants do otherwise? They no more desire to bring alterations to this uneconomical manner of living than they would wish to alter the appearance of Mont Blanc, whose snow fields are visible on clear days sixty miles distant. On the higher slopes of the hills, which so softly intersect the lower lands, the grape clusters burgeon and ripen in long lines, in preparation for coppered vats, while down by the river men make hay out of the rushes that grow in the rough, undrained levels. And how gently the year turns to autumn in these forgotten acres!
In summer time, of all rivers the River Furens is the most happy. Slowly through the long September hours it winds its way through the silence of its reeds, with nothing to disturb the unbroken stillness save the rustle of grasshoppers, the fluttering of butterflies, or that most soothing, most harmonious of all possible sounds, the sudden, unexpected splash of a river fish rising to a fly. The rushes of the Furens are tall, and covered with feathery pennants. They sway gently to and fro with the movement of the breeze, or with the slow, persistent current of the cool, deep water. Their stems are filled with white pith, and they can easily be hollowed out to make pipes suitable for the protruding lips of a god.
It happened that I was fortunate enough to be walking by the banks of this river on a late summer afternoon of the present year. A fisherman had showed me his catch, and I had held in my hands two beautiful fish. The rim of their eyes was golden, like the rim of an eagle’s eye. Their backs, when I rubbed away a few silver-white scales, revealed themselves as possessing an emerald peacock sheen, smooth and slippery, and smelling of that indescribable smell that belongs alone to fresh-water fish.
How the great Montaigne would have relished the scene, I thought, had he in his journey to Rome passed through this ancient valley. When I think of the French countryside, it is always to his writings that my mind reverts. How he loved to observe its sluggish life unroll before his indolent scrutiny — season merging into season, the grape harvest into the days of mud and rain, the time of sowing into the time of budding. There is no château in France that I would rather see than Montaigne’s château, with its tower and chapel, as they say, stiil standing. How extraordinary to enter the very chapel where the great good man, his wits awakened with red wine from his buttery, would indulge in his wry devotions! Montaigne, indeed, was still in my mind when I left the fisherman to follow under some poplars, which bordered the riverside meadow where men and women were so diligently employed in piling the rough fodder on to their squat carts. I did not know that I had only to pass the last tree and there would appear high up on the hillside, with a command of the valley as far as eye could see, a veritable duplicate of the famous house dedicated to the Muses. ‘What is that château over there?’ I asked a woman who, islanded in her wooden sabots, was watching her cows. ‘It is the Château de Vieugey, monsieur,’ she answered. ‘It is very old — so old that the period of its building is forgotten.’ I noticed that her tone seemed hushed as she referred to the antiquity of the place. To simple people the past carries weight, is to be revered. They regard all that comes out of it with religious awe, as they might regard relics from the obscure recesses of some venerable sanctuary. ‘Great seigneurs lived in it once, but now it is owned by those who till the ground with their hands.’
Slowly I mounted the winding road that ascended the hill beneath the walls of the place. I found a portion of the great gateway that had been at the entrance of the courtyard still standing. The door of the farm upon which I now knocked opened into a round mediæval tower built of enormous stones. Above the mullioned lintel a headstone protruded, chipped and shattered. Presently I heard the sound of steps, and I was admitted forthwith. The woman who had opened the door proved to be the farmer’s wife. She was very affable, but could tell little of the history of the dwelling. ‘My mother knows; you must ask her,’ she said. ‘It is a sad story.’ She took me to the top of the tower, where, through gaps broken in the masonry, I looked out at the opposite mountains, and at the peasants working in the fields, with their yoked oxen appearing like beetles trudging with burdens behind them between the small round foreign haycocks. She took me through great halls with faggots and out-of-use farm implements lying on the floors, and with their spacious stone fireplaces littered with hay and straw. Some of these rooms were fitted with stone seats, in alcoves, on each side of the iron-barred windows. What men and what women of the old days, dressed in their stiff, proud garments, had rested on them? In these rooms, how many children had been brought up and taught to control their insubordinate wills!
In yet another wing of the place was a small square chamber — the chapel. Near the door was the stoup for the holy water, now half full of owl’s pellets. Here it was that the owners of the land had expressed each morning and evening their unsuspicious, mediæval faith in the Christian religion.
When we came back to the kitchen we found a man there, the farmer, of enormous stature, come in from the fields, his blue shirt open. I never have seen such a chest — it was hairy as a gorilla’s. And there rose from the fellow a rich, rank, animal smell, like that which rises from a cow stall or from a stable. He was very friendly. I asked him how it was I had seen so many ash trees pollarded, and he explained to me that in the dry season they supplement the winter’s fodder with their faggots. Both cattle and sheep fatten on dry ash leaves, but the faggots have to be got ready for the cows, whereas the sheep nibble the leaves adroitly and take care not to hurt their mouths with the twigs or splintered branches. To bring home the point to my intelligence, and for want of words, he simulated with his own jaws the clumsy, unseeing manner of eating that belongs to a cow, and the mincing eclecticism that a sheep displays when feeding. ‘I wish I could speak another language than French,’ he suddenly said. ‘It is useful.’ I was surprised at hearing this uncouth peasant give utterance to such a desire. ‘Every hedger and ditcher,’ I thought, ‘has now learned the value of culture.’ But it turned out that his words were prompted by a very practical consideration. The man had been called up in the Great War to defend France. He had a mother and father and a wife and four children dependent on him, and it was with the greatest reluctance that he left the old château. At the front he picked up a few words of German from a prisoner who was a farmer and liked to talk with him about country matters. A little afterward, when his troop had been ordered over the top, he had suddenly found himself, in the confusion of the battle, confronting one of the enemy in a narrow dugout. Each was about to shoot the other down, when the Frenchman called out in the few words of German he had learned, ‘Brother, let us not kill. Let us return alive. Let us shake hands’ — which they did with tears of friendship. ‘Ah, monsieur,’ he said, ‘it was those few words that saved me, that allowed me to come back and walk in front of my oxen. Who would have been the gainer if we had both been killed! As it is, I am still blessed by feeling the sunlight on my shoulders.’
Extraordinary how the simple desire to get home to his family had taught this son of the soil a reasonableness of vision not often to be attained even by wiser heads. I asked him about the château. He knew nothing. He had heard that it once belonged to two brothers who killed each other. His old mother would tell me. She was out with the cows in the field next the river. He would show me where — and he led me to the window and indicated a tiny black speck, small as a jackdaw, far away below. Where we stood was his kitchen sink, and I noticed how its surface was polished like marble, that surface sloping down to a drain of ancient workmanship that led out to a stone gargoyle. ‘Voilà, voilà ma mère,’ he kept repeating, and, as I stood by him with the sour-sweet hayseed sweat of his muscular body in my nostrils, I was able to appreciate the depth of his affection for his secluded locality, peopled with the familiar characters that he knew, and where in the long twilights there would come against his face puffs of wind cooled by the dew of numberless vineyards, and by the water contained in the huge stone troughs, large and oblong as abbot’s coffins, out of the mossy hollows of which, each morning and evening, his great subject beasts raised their dripping muzzles.
I found the mother sitting on a rush-bottomed chair in the middle of the meadow, near a row of poplars. She was an old woman dressed in black, and was occupied in knitting a sock out of rough, unbleached wool. I asked her for the story of the house. ‘I will tell you,’ she said. ‘It was long ago, and the property in those days was in the possession of a family called Rigaud. The last heirs were two brothers. There had been a fête, an entertainment, at the château, and these young men, after it was over, went to rest out here, near where I sit, under a large mulberry tree that now is cut down. They slept, and the stars came out. Presently an owl awaked them, calling its call in the branches above their heads, and one brother remarked to the other, “I wish I had fields as large and wide as the firmament,” and the other replied, looking at the night sky, “I wish I had cattle as many as the stars.” “What would you do with so many oxen, brother?” “Drive them to graze in your meadows.” Then the other brother answered fiercely, “If you sent them to graze in my fields I would cut off their legs.” And the other replied, “If you served me as mower, I would serve you as butcher.” And a quarrel rose out of the dispute of so violent a nature that they drew their rapiers and ran each other through the body. When the great new church was built, at the time I was a child, they dug up the bones of these two unfortunate ones who were buried in the same grave, and behold! none could tell them apart. That is the tale as my husband used to tell it, but in the library of the college they have papers. It would be best to go there. My husband loved the place. When he was so poor that he had to work for another he would come for miles so that he could dig in the garden under these old walls.’ At the thought of her good man tears began to trickle down her cheeks, which were brown as nut leaves in autumn. ‘He was a good man, my husband was. He would make the coffee in the morning, and at any hour of the day would come into the court and say, “ What can I do, Gabrielle, to help?” He was an innocent, and the good God took him.’
The next morning I consulted a priest at the College of Lamartine, and after some negotiations had sight of the necessary documents. Little by little I filled in the old woman’s story from recorded facts. The château was built about 1303. It was first held by the family Rigaud. They were of importance in the neighborhood, and one of them, toward the end of the fifteenth century, became the Archbishop of Rouen. This prelate presented the cathedral with a monstrous bell, which, in his honor, was called ‘La Rigaud’ — and so heavy was it that to ring it a man had often to revive himself with drink, which gave birth to the expression, ‘Drink while pulling the Rigaud.’ It was the two great-nephews of this archbishop who killed each other in the way retailed by the old woman. They were twins, and though they loved each other dearly they would often quarrel. They looked so much alike that even their parents could hardly distinguish the one from the other, Gaston de Pompée from Pompée de Gaston. Until the rebuilding of the cathedral church there was to be seen near the high altar a Renaissance monument. It marked the place where the two boys were buried. It was found necessary to remove the tomb, and when it was opened two skeletons were seen with bones intermingled. In this way the truth of its Latin inscription was proved — Mens una, cinis unus. Mind one, ashes one.
I revisited the château once more before I left Belley, and my memory of it remains clear as I saw it for the last time — that house with its tragic story, standing in silence above the wide enshadowed valley of the River Furens. It was here that those ill-fated children used to pursue, between the gnarled stocks of the grapes, the great green lizards peculiar to the country. And above the small red tiles of the château are still to be seen, significant of this land of wine, along the ridges of the upland slopes, uneven rows of vineyard stakes.