A PROVINCIAL BASTILLE.
The traveller of forty years ago, who entered the forest of Fougères from the side of Laignelet, and came out on the side of Parigné, was confronted with a forbidding object on the edge of these dark woods. As he emerged from the thicket, la Tourgue arose abruptly before him.
Not the living la Tourgue, but the dead la Tourgue. La Tourgue rent, ruined, scarred, dismantled. A ruin is to an edifice what a ghost is to a man.
There was no more gloomy sight than la Tourgue. Before one's eyes was a lofty round tower, standing alone in a corner of the wood, like a malefactor. This tower, rising from a perpendicular rock, was almost Roman in appearance, it was so regular and solid, and the idea of power was so mingled with the idea of ruin in this mighty mass. It was slightly Roman, for it was Romanesque; it was begun in the ninth century and finished in the twelfth, after the third Crusade. The impost mouldings of its archways told its age.
If the traveller approached it, climbed up the escarpment, noticed a breach, took his risk in entering, went inside, he found it empty. It was something like the inside of a stone trumpet placed upright on the ground. From top to bottom there were no partitions; there was no roof, no ceiling, no floor; there were arch stones and chimney-pieces, and embrasures for ancient cannon; at different heights, bands of granite corbels, and some cross-beams, marking the stories; the beams were covered with the lime of night birds; the colossal wall was fifteen feet thick at the base, and twelve at the summit; here and there were crevices and holes which had been doorways, through which could be seen dark staircases inside the wall. The passer-by who came in here in the evening would have heard the cries of the brown owl, herons, goat-suckers, and other birds; and would have seen under his feet brambles, stones, and reptiles; and above his head, through a black circle, which was the top of the tower and seemed like the mouth of an enormous well, the stars.
There was a tradition in the country that in the upper stories of this tower there were secret doors, like the doors in the tombs of the kings of Judah, made of a single stone turning on a pivot, opening, then closing and losing itself in the wall; a style of architecture brought back from the Crusades with the pointed arch. When these doors were closed it was impossible to find them, they were so well blended with the other stones in the wall. Such doors may be seen at the present time in the mysterious cities of Anti-Lebanon, escaped from the twelve towns which were buried by the earthquakes in the time of Tiberius.
The breach which formed the entrance to the ruin was the opening to a mine. For a connoisseur familiar with Errard, Sardi and Pagan, this mine had been coustructed according to rule. The fire chamber, shaped like a mitre, was proportioned to the power of the keep it had to rip open. It must have held at least two hundredweight of powder. It was reached by a winding passage, which is more advantageous than a straight one; the caving in caused by the mine laid bare, where the stones were torn away, the saucission having the diameter of a hen's egg. The explosion had made a deep hole in the wall, through which the besiegers must have been able to enter. This tower had evidently sustained regular sieges at different times; it was riddled with grapeshot; and the grapeshot did not all belong to the same period; each projectile has its own way of marking a rampart; and all had left their scar on this keep, from the stone cannon balls of the fourteenth century to the iron cannon balls of the eighteenth.
The breach opened into what must have been the ground floor. Opposite the breach in the wall of the tower, opened the door to a crypt cut out in the rock, and extending in the foundations of the tower under the entire hall of the ground floor.
This crypt, three quarters filled up, was cleared out in 1835, under the direction of Monsieur Auguste le Prévost, the Antiquary of Bernay.
This crypt was the oubliette.
Every keep has its dungeon. This keep, like many torture chambers of the same period, had two stories. The first story which was reached by the door, was a large arched room on a level with the hall of the ground floor. On the wall of this room were seen two parallel, vertical grooves, extending from one side to the other across the arched ceiling, where they made a deep indentation, giving the impression of two wheel tracks. They were two wheel tracks in reality. These two grooves had been hollowed out by two wheels. Formerly, in feudal times, victims had been quartered in this room, by a less noisy process than with the four horses. They had two wheels there, so strong and so large that they touched the walls and the arched ceiling; an arm and a leg of the prisoner were fastened to each of the wheels, then the wheels were revolved in opposite directions, which tore the man asunder. It required force, and this caused the grooves hollowed out in the stone ground by the wheels. At the present time, a room of this kind may still be seen at Vianden.
Under this room there was another. This was the real dungeon. It was not entered by a door, it was penetrated through a hole; the victim, naked, was let down by a rope under the armpits, into the lower chamber, through a hole in the centre of the pavement of the room above. If he persisted in living, food was thrown to him through this hole. A hole of this kind may still be seen at Bouillon.
Air came through this hole. The lower room, dug out under the hall of the ground floor, was rather a well than a room. There was water at the bottom, and it was filled with an icy draught. This draught, which was death to the prisoner below, kept the prisoner above alive; it made it possible to breathe in the prison. The prisoner above, groping about under his arched ceiling, received no air except through this hole. Moreover, whoever went down there, or fell down there never came out again. The prisoner had to keep away from it in the darkness. One false step might make the prisoner of the upper chamber a prisoner of the lower. This was ever before him. If he clung to life this hole was his danger; if he was weary of it, this hole was his resource. The upper story was the dungeon; the lower story, the tomb. A superposition resembling the society of that time.
This was what our ancestors called a "cul-de-basse-fosse." As such a thing has gone out of existence, the name has no meaning for us. Thanks to the Revolution, we can utter these words with indifference.
Outside the tower, above the breach which forty years ago was the only entrance, was an opening larger than the other loopholes, from which hung an iron grating, broken and loose.
IV.—The Little Castle on the Bridge.
On the opposite side of the breach, a bridge of stone with three arches very little injured, was joined to this tower. The bridge had supported a building, some fragments of which were still remaining. There was nothing left of this building, which showed evidence of a conflagration, but charred timbers, a sort of framework through which the daylight penetrated, and which rose near the tower, like a skeleton beside a ghost.
This ruin is now entirely demolished, and not a trace of it is left. One day and one peasant were enough to undo the work of many centuries and many kings.
La Tourgue is a peasant abbreviation for la Tour-Gauvain, just as la Jupelle is an abbreviation of la Jupellière, and as the name of that humpbacked chief, Pinson-le-Tort, means Pinson-le-Tortu.
La Tourgue, which was in ruins forty years ago, and to-day is only a name, in 1793 was a fortress. It was the old bastille of the Gauvain family, guarding the western entrance to the forest of Fougeres, a forest which is hardly a grove now.
This citadel was built on one of those great blocks of schist which abound between Mayenne and Dinan, and are scattered everywhere through the thickets and moors, as though the giants had been throwing stones at each other's heads.
The tower comprised the whole fortress; under the tower was the rock, at the foot of the rock one of those streams of water which the month of January changes to a torrent, and the month of June dries up entirely.
Simplified to this extent, the fortress in the middie ages was almost impregnable. The bridge weakened it. The Gothic Gauvains had built it without a bridge. It was reached by one of those movable foot bridges, which could be destroyed by a single axe blow. While the Gauvains were viscounts, it pleased them thus, and they were satisfied with it; but when they became marquises, and when they left the cave for the court, they threw three arches across the torrent, and made themselves accessible from the plain, just as they had made themselves accessible to the king. The marquises of the seventeenth century and the marchionesses of the eighteenth, did not care to be impregnable. Imitating Versailles took the place of keeping up the ancestral traditions.
In front of the tower on the western side was a very high table-land, extending to the plains; this table-land almost touched the tower, and was only separated from it by a very deep ravine, through which flowed the watercourse which is a tributary of the Couesnon. The bridge connecting the fortress and the table-land was built high on piers; and on these piers was constructed a building like that at Chenonceaux in the Mansard style, and more habitable than the tower. But manners were still very rude; the seigneurs held to the custom of living in the rooms of the keep, which were like dungeons. As for the building on the bridge, which was a sort of chatelet, it contained a long corridor which served as an entrance and was called the guard hall; above this guard hall, which was a sort of entresol, was the library, above the library, a granary. Long windows with little panes of Bohemian glass, pilasters between the windows, medallions carved in the wall; three stories: on the lower floor were the halberds and muskets; on the next, the books; on the next, bags of oats; all this was rather savage and very princely.
The tower beside it was fierce.
It rose above this coquettish building in all its gloomy haughtiness. From the platform, the bridge could be destroyed.
The two edifices, one rude, the other elegant, clashed rather than complimented each other. The two styles were not harmonious; although it seems as if two semicircles ought to be similar, nothing resembles a Roman semicircle less than a classic archivault. This tower, suited to the forest, was a strange neighbor to this bridge worthy of Versailles. Imagine Alain Barbe-Torte giving his arm to Louis XIV. The combination was terrible. A strange ferocity resulted from the union of these two majesties.
From a military point of view, the bridge, we must insist, almost betrayed the tower. It adorned it and disarmed it; in gaining ornamentation it had lost strength. The bridge placed it on a footing with the table-land. Although still impregnable on the side of the forest, it was now vulnerable on the side of the plain. Once it commanded the table-land, now it was commanded by the table-land. An enemy established there, would quickly become master of the bridge. The library and the granary were to the advantage of the besieger, and against the fortress. A library and a granary are alike in this respect, that books and straw are both combustible. It is all the same to a besieger, making use of fire, whether he burns Homer or a bundle of hay, provided it burns. The French proved this to the Germans when they burned the library at Heidelberg, and the Germans proved it to the French when they burned the library at Strasburg. Adding this bridge to la Tourgue was strategically a mistake; but in the seventeenth century, under Colbert and Louvois, the Gauvain princes, as well as the princes of Rohan and the princes of la Trémoille, believed that they would never be besieged again.
However, the builders of the bridge had taken some precautions. First, they had taken the possibility of fire into account; under the three windows on the side next the water they had hung crosswise, to hooks which could still be seen a half century ago, a strong ladder for escape, as long as the height of the first two stories of the bridge, a height greater than three ordinary stories. Second, they had taken the possibility of assault into account; they had isolated the bridge from the tower by means of a low, heavy iron door; this door was arched; it was locked with a large key, kept in a hiding-place known to the keeper alone, and once closed, this door could defy the battering-ram, and almost withstand cannon balls.
It was necessary to pass through the bridge to reach this door, and to pass through this door to enter the tower. There was no other entrance.
V.—The Iron Door.
The second story of the chatelet on the bridge, raised on the piers, corresponded to the second story of the tower; the iron door had been placed at this height to make it more secure.
The iron door opened from the side of the bridge into the library, and from the side of the tower into a great arched hall with a pillar in the centre. This hall, as has already been said, was in the second story of the keep. It was round, like the tower; long loopholes, looking out on the plains, lighted it. The wall was quite rough and bare, and nothing concealed the stones, which were very symmetrically laid. This hall was reached by a winding staircase made inside the wall, a thing easily done when the walls are fifteen feet thick. In the Middle Ages, a town was taken street by street; a street, house by house; a house, room by room. They besieged a fortress, story by story.
La Tourgue was in this respect very ingeniously arranged, very churlish, and very unapproachable. A spiral staircase, extremely steep and inaccessible, led from one story to another; the doors were slanting and not so high as a man, and it was necessary to bow one's head in order to pass through; but a bowed head meant a head knocked off, and at each door the besieged awaited the besiegers.
Below the round hall with the column were two similar rooms, which formed the first story and the ground floor, and above there were three; above these six rooms placed one upon another, the tower was closed over with a roof of stone, which was the platform, and reached by a narrow watch-tower.
The fifteen feet, the thickness of the wall, which they must have had to cut through in order to place the iron door in the middle, imbedded it in a long coving, so that when the door closed, it was as much on the side of the tower as on the side of the bridge, under a porch six or seven feet deep; when it was open the two porches formed one and made the entrance arch.
Under the porch on the side of the bridge, inside the wall, was a low gate with a St. Gilles's staircase, leading to the corridor on the first fioor, under the library; this was still another difliculty for the besieger. The chatelet on the bridge presented nothing but a perpendicular wall on the side next the table-land, and the bridge ended there. A draw-bridge, applied to a low door, put it in communication with the table-land, and this draw-bridge, never lowered except on an inclined plane, on account of the height, gave entrance to the long corridor, called the hall of the guards. Once master of this corridor, the besieger, in order to reach the iron door, was obliged to tear away the St. Giles's staircase leading to the second story.
The library was an oblong hall of the same width and length as the bridge, and having a single door, the iron door. A false swinging door, padded with green cloth, and opening with a push, screened the arched entrance to the tower on the inside. The wall of the library from top to bottom, and from floor to ceiling was covered with cabinets having glass doors, in the beautiful style of carpentry of the seventeenth century.
Six large windows, three on each side, one above each arch, lighted this library. From the top of the plateau outside, one could look through these windows and see the inside. Between the windows, on carved oak terminals, stood six marble busts: Hermolaüs, of Byzantium; Athenæus, the grammarian of Naukratos; Suidas; Casaubon; Clovis, king of France; and his chancellor Anachalus, who, by the way, was no more a chancellor than Clovis was a king.
There were books of every kind in this library. One has become famous. It was an old quarto with prints, bearing the title, "Saint Bartholomew," in large letters; and the sub-title, "Gospel according to Saint Bartholomew, preceded by a dissertation by Pantœnus, a Christian philosopher, on the question whether this gospel should be considered apocryphal, and whether Saint Bartholomew be the same as Nathaniel."
This book, thought to be the only copy, rested on a desk in the centre of the library. In the last century, people went to see it out of curiosity.
The granary which, like the library, had the oblong form of the bridge, was merely the space under the timber-work of the roof. It made a large hall and was filled with straw and hay, and lighted by six garret windows. It's only adornment was a figure of Saint Barnabas, carved on the door, with this verse beneath it,—
Barnabus sanctus falcem jubet ire per herbam.
A wide, lofty tower, with six stories, penetrated by an occasional loophole, having for its only means of entrance and exit an iron door opening on a castle bridge, closed by a drawbridge; behind the tower, the forest; in front of the tower, a plateau covered with heath: under the bridge, between the tower and the plateau, a deep ravine, narrow and full of brambles; a torrent in winter, a brook in spring, a stony ditch in summer; such was the Tour-Gauvain, called la Tourgue.