The Annotated 'Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes'/Pont De Montvert

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Pont De Montvert

One of the first things I encountered in Pont de Montvert was, if I remember rightly, the Protestant temple; but this was but the type of other novelties. A subtle atmosphere distinguishes a town in England from a town in France, or even in Scotland. At Carlisle you can see you are in the one country; at Dumfries, thirty miles away, you are as sure that you are in the other. I should find it difficult to tell in what particulars Pont de Montvert differed from Monastier or Langogne, or even Bleymard; but the difference existed, and spoke eloquently to the eyes. The place, with its houses, its lanes, its glaring river-bed, wore an indescribable air of the South.

All was Sunday bustle in the streets and in the public-house, as all had been Sabbath peace among the mountains. There must have been near a score of us at dinner by eleven before noon; and after I had eaten and drunken, and sat writing up my journal, I suppose as many more came dropping in one after another, or by twos and threes. In crossing the Lozère I had not only come among new natural features, but moved into the territory of a different race. These people, as they hurriedly despatched their viands in an intricate sword-play of knives, questioned and answered me with a degree of intelligence which excelled all that I had met, except among the railway folk at Chasseradès. They had open telling faces, and were lively both in speech and manner. They not only entered thoroughly into the spirit of my little trip, but more than one declared, if he were rich enough, he would like to set forth on such another.

Even physically there was a pleasant change. I had not seen a pretty woman since I left Monastier, and there but one. Now of the three who sat down with me to dinner, one was certainly not beautiful—a poor timid thing of forty, quite troubled at this roaring table d’hôte,[1] whom I squired and helped to wine, and pledged and tried generally to encourage, with quite a contrary effect; but the other two, both married, were both more handsome than the average of women. And Clarisse? What shall I say of Clarisse? She waited the table with a heavy placable nonchalance, like a performing cow; her great grey eyes were steeped in amorous languor; her features, although fleshy, were of an original and accurate design; her mouth had a curl; her nostril spoke of dainty pride; her cheek fell into strange and interesting lines. It was a face capable of strong emotion, and, with training, it offered the promise of delicate sentiment. It seemed pitiful to see so good a model left to country admirers and a country way of thought. Beauty should at least have touched society; then, in a moment, it throws off a weight that lay upon it, it becomes conscious of itself, it puts on an elegance, learns a gait and a carriage of the head, and, in a moment, patet dea.[2] Before I left I assured Clarisse of my hearty admiration. She took it like milk, without embarrassment or wonder, merely looking at me steadily with her great eyes; and I own the result upon myself was some confusion. If Clarisse could read English, I should not dare to add that her figure was unworthy of her face. Hers was a case for stays; but that may perhaps grow better as she gets up in years.[3]

Pont de Montvert, or Greenhill Bridge, as we might say at home,[4] is a place memorable in the story of the Camisards. It was here that the war broke out; here that those southern Covenanters slew their Archbishop Sharp.[5] The persecution on the one hand, the febrile enthusiasm on the other, are almost equally difficult to understand in these quiet modern days, and with our easy modern beliefs and disbeliefs. The Protestants were one and all beside their right minds with zeal and sorrow. They were all prophets and prophetesses. Children at the breast would exhort their parents to good works. ‘A child of fifteen months at Quissac spoke from its mother’s arms, agitated and sobbing, distinctly and with a loud voice.’[6] Marshal Villars [7]has seen a town where all the women ‘seemed possessed by the devil,’[8] and had trembling fits, and uttered prophecies publicly upon the streets. A prophetess of Vivarais was hanged at Montpellier because blood flowed from her eyes and nose, and she declared that she was weeping tears of blood for the misfortunes of the Protestants.[9] And it was not only women and children. Stalwart dangerous fellows, used to swing the sickle or to wield the forest axe, were likewise shaken with strange paroxysms, and spoke oracles with sobs and streaming tears. A persecution unsurpassed in violence had lasted near a score of years, and this was the result upon the persecuted; hanging, burning, breaking on the wheel, had been in vain; the dragoons had left their hoof-marks over all the countryside; there were men rowing in the galleys, and women pining in the prisons of the Church; and not a thought was changed in the heart of any upright Protestant.

Now the head and forefront of the persecution—after Lamoignon de Bâvile[10]François de Langlade du Chayla (pronounce Chéïla), Archpriest of the Cevennes and Inspector of Missions in the same country, had a house in which he sometimes dwelt in the town of Pont de Montvert. He was a conscientious person, who seems to have been intended by nature for a pirate, and now fifty-five, an age by which a man has learned all the moderation of which he is capable. A missionary in his youth in China, he there suffered martyrdom, was left for dead, and only succoured and brought back to life by the charity of a pariah. We must suppose the pariah devoid of second-sight, and not purposely malicious in this act. Such an experience, it might be thought, would have cured a man of the desire to persecute; but the human spirit is a thing strangely put together; and, having been a Christian martyr, Du Chayla became a Christian persecutor. The Work of the Propagation of the Faith went roundly forward in his hands. His house in Pont de Montvert served him as a prison. There he closed the hands of his prisoners upon live coal, and plucked out the hairs of their beards, to convince them that they were deceived in their opinions. And yet had not he himself tried and proved the inefficacy of these carnal arguments among the Buddhists in China?

Not only was life made intolerable in Languedoc, but flight was rigidly forbidden. One Massip,[11] a muleteer, and well acquainted with the mountain-paths, had already guided several troops of fugitives in safety to Geneva; and on him, with another convoy, consisting mostly of women dressed as men, Du Chayla, in an evil hour for himself, laid his hands. The Sunday following, there was a conventicle of Protestants in the woods of Altefage upon Mount Bougès;[12] where there stood up one Séguier—Spirit Séguier,[13] as his companions called him—a wool-carder,[14] tall, black-faced, and toothless, but a man full of prophecy. He declared, in the name of God, that the time for submission had gone by, and they must betake themselves to arms for the deliverance of their brethren and the destruction of the priests.

The next night, 24th July 1702, a sound disturbed the Inspector of Missions as he sat in his prison-house at Pont de Montvert: the voices of many men upraised in psalmody drew nearer and nearer through the town. It was ten at night; he had his court about him, priests, soldiers, and servants, to the number of twelve or fifteen; and now dreading the insolence of a conventicle below his very windows, he ordered forth his soldiers to report. But the psalm-singers were already at his door, fifty strong, led by the inspired Séguier, and breathing death. To their summons, the archpriest made answer like a stout old persecutor, and bade his garrison fire upon the mob. One Camisard (for, according to some, it was in this night’s work that they came by the name) fell at this discharge: his comrades burst in the door with hatchets and a beam of wood, overran the lower story of the house, set free the prisoners, and finding one of them in the vine, a sort of Scavenger’s Daughter of the place and period, redoubled in fury against Du Chayla, and sought by repeated assaults to carry the upper floors. But he, on his side, had given absolution to his men, and they bravely held the staircase.

‘Children of God,’ cried the prophet, ‘hold your hands. Let us burn the house, with the priest and the satellites of Baal.’[15]

The fire caught readily. Out of an upper window Du Chayla and his men lowered themselves into the garden by means of knotted sheets; some escaped across the river under the bullets of the insurgents; but the archpriest himself fell, broke his thigh, and could only crawl into the hedge. What were his reflections as this second martyrdom drew near? A poor, brave, besotted, hateful man, who had done his duty resolutely according to his light both in the Cevennes and China. He found at least one telling word to say in his defence; for when the roof fell in and the upbursting flames discovered his retreat, and they came and dragged him to the public place of the town, raging and calling him damned—‘If I be damned,’ said he, ‘why should you also damn yourselves?’

Here was a good reason for the last; but in the course of his inspectorship he had given many stronger which all told in a contrary direction; and these he was now to hear. One by one, Séguier first, the Camisards drew near and stabbed him. ‘This,’ they said, ‘is for my father broken on the wheel. This for my brother in the galleys. That for my mother or my sister imprisoned in your cursed convents.’ Each gave his blow and his reason; and then all kneeled and sang psalms around the body till the dawn. With the dawn, still singing, they defiled away towards Frugèresmap, farther up the Tarn, to pursue the work of vengeance, leaving Du Chayla’s prison-house in ruins, and his body pierced with two-and-fifty wounds upon the public place.

’Tis a wild night’s work, with its accompaniment of psalms; and it seems as if a psalm must always have a sound of threatening in that town upon the Tarn. But the story does not end, even so far as concerns Pont de Montvert, with the departure of the Camisards. The career of Séguier was brief and bloody. Two more priests and a whole family at Ladevèze, from the father to the servants, fell by his hand or by his orders; and yet he was but a day or two at large, and restrained all the time by the presence of the soldiery. Taken at length by a famous soldier of fortune, Captain Poul,[16] he appeared unmoved before his judges.

‘Your name?’ they asked.

‘Pierre Séguier.’

‘Why are you called Spirit?’

‘Because the Spirit of the Lord is with me.’[17]

‘Your domicile?’

‘Lately in the desert, and soon in heaven.’

‘Have you no remorse for your crimes?’

‘I have committed none. My soul is like a garden full of shelter and of fountains.’[18]

At Pont de Montvert, on the 12th of August, he had his right hand stricken from his body, and was burned alive. And his soul was like a garden? So perhaps was the soul of Du Chayla, the Christian martyr. And perhaps if you could read in my soul, or I could read in yours, our own composure might seem little less surprising.

Du Chayla’s house still stands, with a new roof, beside one of the bridges of the town; and if you are curious you may see the terrace-garden into which he dropped.

Notes[edit]

  1. table d’hôte .. literally, "host's table". The host decides the evenings menu and price; sometimes called "family style".
  2. patet dea .. Virgil (70-19 BC), Aeneid, Book I, Line 405: et vera incessu patuit dea. ("and by her gait she was revealed a true goddess.")
  3. Clarissa .. when Hammerton returned in 1903 he was informed by a local Pastor (who remembered Stevenson) that Clarissa had married and "settled in another town with a considerable family around her." (Source: Hammerton, p.59)
  4. Greenhill Bridge, as we might say at home .. [reference unknown]
  5. Archbishop Sharp .. James Sharp (1613-1679), Archbishop of St. Andrews, Scotland; murdered by Scotch Covenanters (Protestants) when he attempted to reintroduce bishops and archbishops in the Scottish Church.
  6. quote .. [unknown source]
  7. Marshal Villars .. Claude-Louis-Hector de Villars, Duke of Villars (1653-1732). General given command of the war against the Camisards after the failure of two predecessors. He eventually beat them and offered surrender terms to Cavalier which broke the main resistance.
  8. quote .. Villars left extensive memoirs first published in 1734.
  9. prophetess of Vivarais was hanged at Montpellier .. "a woman from Vivarais, whose origin was unknown.. went about from town to town, shedding tears of blood [for the misfortunes of the Protestants].. she was arrested and brought to Montpellier. There she was condemned to death and burnt at the stake, her tears of blood being dried by fire." (Source: Alexandre Dumas, Massacres of the South[1])
  10. Lamoignon de Bâvile .. Lamoignon de Bâvile (1648-1724), distinguished lawyer and Governor Languedoc. He led the persecution against the Camisards prior to and during the war.
  11. Massip .. Pierre de Massip helped Protestants escape to Switzerland. He was captured on July 19th, 1702 - five days before Abby Chayla's murder and start of the hostilities.
  12. woods of Altefage upon Mount Bougès .. [unknown location]
  13. Spirit .. Esprit Séguier, a peasant leader of the Camisards. He was held personally responsible for the killing of François de Langlade du Chayla, striking the first blow.
  14. wool-carder .. someone who uses a wool-card (comb).
  15. children of God.. .. See "1 Kings, 18" [2]
  16. Captain Poul .. military leader who fought against the Camisards. “He was,” said Pere Louvreloeil, priest of the Christian doctrine and cure of Saint-Germain de Calberte, “an officer of merit and reputation.. His tall and agile figure, his warlike air, his love of hard work, his hoarse voice, his fiery and austere character, his carelessness in regard to dress, his mature age, his tried courage, his taciturn habit, the length and weight of his sword, all combined to render him formidable. Therefore no one could have been chosen more suitable for putting down the rebels, for forcing their entrenchments, and for putting them to flight.” (Source: Alexandre Dumas, Massacres of the South[3])
  17. Because the Spirit of the Lord is with me. .. "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised," Luke, 4:18 (KJV).
  18. like a garden full of shelter and of fountains .. Song of Solomon, 4:12: "A garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse; a spring shut up, a fountain sealed." All this passage is a translation from Du Peyrat's Les Pasteurs du Désert. Book IV, Chap. IV

The Annotated 'Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes'