A Book of the Pyrenees/Chapter 10

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Pic de Gers—Argelez—Vieuzac—The Balandrau—Intermittent spring—Cave of Ouzous—Devantaïgue—Beaucens—Val d'Azun—Fortresses—Arras—Aucun—Lake—Arreins—Puy-al-Hun—Commissioners scared from it—Garrison frightened away—Queen Hortense—A miscalculation—Saint Savin—The Voisins—Palatium Æmilianum—Church—Paintings—S. Orens—Disorderly monks—Pierrefite—Ravine—Peasantry.

A FUNICULAR railway takes a visitor to the top of the Pic de Gers, whence he can obtain, a fine comprehensive panorama of the mountains. A cross surmounts the peak that is illuminated at night.

On quitting Lourdes to ascend the Valley of Argelez the mountain sides are seen to be bare, having been denuded of their trees by the ruthless axe of the peasant. Presently the train passes a mound on which stands a solitary tower called after the Black Prince, who is held to have ordered its construction to watch the upper portion of the valley. Then the basin of Argelez opens up, with villages and culture, vines, chestnuts, walnuts, running high up the sides of the mountains, mainly on the right bank of the Gave, and maize in the plain standing up as high as a man, or in the season sheets of forget-me-not-blue waving flax, alternating with crimson stretches of the Trifolium incarnatum. On the rubbly slopes the glistening box flourishes luxuriantly. Argelez is a delightful resort in spring and summer. It has its bathing establishment, to which the waters of Gazost are led, its casino, and a park in which the bamboos grow rank, and the acacias in spring flower and scent the air. Avenues, bordered by hotels, link the Argelez of the tourist and those who go there for what the Germans call "Sommerfrische" with the old Argelez. Among the villas is the château of Vieusac, from which that scoundrel Barrère took a title, that he dropped in the Reign of Terror, and reassumed as soon as he was safe under Louis Philippe, when he represented Argelez in the Conseil Général.

This place was formerly a Romano-Gaulish settlement; in a field near the town a considerable number of cinerary urns have been dug up. A mile below Argelez is the Balandrau, a huge block of stone balanced at the edge of a crag, held from falling by a small stone of different nature, that retains it in position, and looking as though all it needed was a touch to send it hurtling down upon the roof of a farm- house planted beneath. A Mass is said annually in the church of Argelez to invoke Divine intervention against such a catastrophe. The Balandrau has been supposed to be a megalithic monument of the dolmen builders, but it is natural, a relic of the Ice Age in the valley when it was choked with glaciers. Farther down a stream flows into the Gave. Here, at Ouzous, is an intermittent spring that turns a mill, when it pleases it to flow. Before it bursts forth it is said to growl and grumble. Here also, in the face of the limestone cliff, is a cave that served as a church during the Reign of Terror, when priests were hunted down like wolves; and here the peasants assembled to hear Mass. Fifty years ago the rude stone altar, made like that of Gilgal, was standing; I have not been to the grotto since.

Facing Argelez, the right bank of the Gave to the crest of the mountains, from Préchac to the mouth of the Valley of Isaby constitutes one of the seven valleys of the ancient confederation of the Lavedan. It is not a valley at all, any more than is that of S. Savin, which formed another, both being mountain slopes, one on the right, the other on the left bank of the Gave. This was the Devantaïgue, which means literally, "in face of the waters," and comprised five communes. In it is the Castle of Beaucens, the former residence of the counts of Lavedan, before it passed into the hands of the King of Navarre. It is an imposing ruin, with the little village clustered about the feet of the rock on which it stands. Tradition is, as we were informed by the peasants, that up to the Revolution a terrible toll was exacted of this little commune; it was bound annually to supply a girl to become a prostitute in Paris.

The Valley of Azun, next to that of Bareges, is the largest of the seven of the confederacy. It is cut off from the basin of Argelez by a barrier of rock, through which its steel-blue Gave has sawn a way. The road to reach the valley has to mount high to surmount the barrier; and this point was strongly defended by three fortresses, the most considerable of which was Castelnau-d'Azun. The ruins are dominated by a donjon and a square tower, of the fourteenth century, which castle was held by the English till taken by assault by the peasants in 1404. Above the ravine cleft by the river is a rock from which the inhabitants hurled a collector of taxes into the abyss, a simpler proceeding than paying their dues. But they were always an independent people, self-governing, almost autonomous. Every householder, female as well as male, voted to elect their consuls and representative at the common parliament that sat at Argelez, comprising those sent from each of the seven valleys to regulate such matters as concerned all conjointly. One can understand how restive they were under the English tyranny. The kings of Navarre respected the privileges of the confederate little republics, and did not interfere with them, but sent a bailiff to administer justice in his name.

The Valley of Azun had to be watched and well guarded, as down it came one of the passages from Spain over a col. Accordingly, the castles on the barrier were but one link in the defence. Arras, farther up, had two more castles, now degraded to prosaic use. Above Arras again is Aucun. The church contains two bénitiers, one, richly carved, represents a wedding, with tumblers, and a musician playing the bagpipes. The other, also of white marble, has on it rudely-sculptured bears in various postures. Aucun was the capital of this miniature republic. A little below it a road descends to and crosses the Gave, and then mounting to the village of Bun leads up the narrow valley of the Gave de Lebat to the pretty bottle-green lakelet of Estaing lying at the foot of the Soum de Monne, behind which is Cauterets.

Farther up the valley of Azun is Arreins, whence started the track leading into Spain by the Col de la Peyre S. Martin. The church served as a refuge in time of danger. It still keeps its crenellated wall of enclosure.

Hard by is the pilgrimage chapel of Puy-al-Hun, on a rock standing boldly up out of the midst of the valley. A writer in 1837 thus describes it:—

"We went up to Notre Dame Pouey-la-Unt, beautifully set down upon a platform overlooking a world of sweet and serene aspect, and having for its rough pavement the rock on which it is built. A fissure runs through it, and when it rains, a stream through the fissure; but the walls are panelled brown and gold, the roof is azure starred with gold, the pillars of the high altar twisted like those of the baldaquin of S. Peter's at Rome, gorgeously gilt and gracefully wreathed with vine leaves and tendrils and bunches of grapes, all gold or its likeness."

The chapel is much the same now as it was when this was written, but the stream no longer flows in the channel athwart the floor. The Commissioners of the Directory visited the place to plunder the shrine and destroy the image of the Virgin, but when they entered the church they were scared by unearthly noises proceeding from above, and they ran away. These noises were produced by some young peasants who had secreted themselves between the vaulting and the roof. However, the chapel was sold, and bought by a farmer's widow in the place. Next a small garrison was quartered in it, for the protection of the frontier against the Spaniards, and the impression of their muskets on the balustrades may still be seen. One evening the women of Arreins, disguising themselves as Spanish soldiers, to the roll of drum, in the dusk made an attack on the chapel, and the garrison, thinking discretion the better part of valour, decamped, and did not halt to take breath till they reached Argelez.

The chapel was visited by Queen Hortense in 1807; she had recently lost her son, the Prince Royal of Holland, and she founded here a Mass to be said in perpetuity for the repose of his soul. The Abbé Pome, then owner and chaplain of the sanctuary, wrote to give the Queen an account of the first anniversary Mass.

"That day, which should have been one of mourning by recalling the memory of a prince born to be the successor of the great Napoleon, has become a day of joy and thankfulness through the birth of another prince, who, generated in our mountains, and, if I may presume to say so, under the special protection of the Virgin, has dried up all our tears, has reanimated our courage, and has become the object of our most flattering hopes."

This prince just born was Louis Napoleon, who became Emperor of the French.

In 1870 Mr. Lawlor published his Pilgrimages in the Pyrenees, and in it says of Napoleon II:—

"The protection of Our Lady of Poëy-la-hun would seem never to have deserted him through all his adventures and dangers."

An unhappy sentence written shortly before the disaster of Sedan in 1871.

On a beautifully wooded height on the right as ascending the Valley of Argelez are seen the tower and church and buildings of S. Savin, where was an abbey of great importance, but of which now all that remain are the church and the chapter-house. The abbot was Seigneur over the so-called Valley of S. Savin, and that of Cauterets, then desert and poor, which belonged to the confraternity. But although seigneur, the abbot was by no means a despotic lord. The little republic of S. Savin would not admit him into his monastery, let him even cross the bounds of the "valley" till he had taken oath to respect the ancient rights and liberties of the place. Its electors went by the name of voisins; but the abbot alone represented S. Savin in the Estates of Bigorre, and he presided over the deliberations of the assembly of voisins and voisines, for women as well as men were the representatives of the will and rights of the little republic, and a single veto would suffice to prevent the execution of any measure voted. On one occasion a voisine, named Galhardine de Fréchon, opposed her veto to the rest of the assembly which was otherwise unanimous, and thus paralyzed their action.

The abbot and his monks doubtless lived well: hunted, and lounged and slept in their comfortable quarters, without discharging their religious duties other than in a perfunctory manner, for the Chevalier Bestin, in his verses relative to a stay in the Pyrenees, boasted of—

"Le long dîner, la courte messe
Du bon abbé de Saint Savin."

The abbey occupies, it is believed, the site of the Palatium Æmilianum, which served as a retreat for Savinus, son of a Count of Barcelona, and nephew of the Count of Poitiers, in the eighth century. The abbey was erected by Charlemagne, and here, so goes the legend, Roland fought and cleft from head to waist two Saracen giants, and constrained a third to submit to baptism. In 843 the terrible Northmen destroyed the monastery. Raymond I, Count of Bigorre, rebuilt it in 945; and he it was who granted the Valley of Cauterets to the monastery. It also possessed sole rights to the interment of the inhabitants of the Val d'Azun. When, on one occasion, these people ventured to bury one of their dead near the church of Arreins, the monks forced them to dig up the body, although in an advanced state of putrefaction, and transport it to S. Savin. It is probably in reference to this that Frossard, a Protestant pastor, and one of the first writers on the Pyrenees, says that the monks enjoyed "several privileges at once destructive to individual liberty and to sound morals."

The first appearance of S. Savin is eminently striking; the massive walls, the large rude blocks of which they are constructed, the lofty apse, the fine portal, and even the clumsy fifteenth-century tower, with its ill-shaped spire, are all impressive.

The present church is of the beginning of the twelfth century, and the architecture is of the plainest and most severe Romanesque. On the tympanum of the west door is a figure of Christ between the evangelistic symbols, but so weathered as to be scarcely distinguishable.

In the interior is the marble tomb of S. Savin; far more ancient than the present church, it is a rude, early sarcophagus. But what is of special interest are the two large paintings on wood, each in nine compartments, representing the legend of the saint, the inscriptions under each group are in patois. In the sacristy are preserved the hood and comb of Savin.

A "bénétier des cagots" is a holy water vessel, near the entrance, supported by figures, supposed to represent members of the proscribed race. The organ case is of 1557, and is adorned with three faces that loll their tongues and roll their eyes, hardly to the edification of the congregation, when the bellows are worked.

The village itself of S. Savin is small, silent, and deserted, and impresses one with a sense of melancholy. But the great beauty of S. Savin is the view one enjoys from it, especially from the chapel of the Pietà, of the upper portion of the basin of the Valley of Argelez. Villages and hamlets are strewn thick over it and on the mountain side opposite. One can see up the Valley of Isaby to the ruin of Saint Orens, and the Pic de Viscos towering as a pyramid above Pierrefite, where open the gorges of the Gave from Luz and from Cauterets.

A scramble up the Valley of Isaby to S. Orens will repay the trouble.

Orens was born at Huescar, in the marches of Aragon. He sold his estate and retired as a hermit to the Valley of Lavedan. He was elected Bishop of Auch about 419, and was dispatched as ambassador from Theodoric the Ostrogoth to sue for peace from Aetius, the Roman general, and was successful. He was the author of a religious poem, the "Commonitorium," still extant, and died in 439 at his monastery in the Lavedan, to which he had retired at an advanced age from his see.

This monastery had fallen into bad ways in the eighteenth century, and the repute of the monks was so evil that the Bishop of Tarbes visited it in 1738. The prior took to his heels when he heard that an investigation into his malpractices was to be held. At the time the entire community was reduced to prior, sacristan, and a single monk, and these no longer resided in the monastery, but lodged with the cureé of Villelongue. In the procès instituted against the convent we read:—

"One of the three above-mentioned is the craftiest and most dangerous man conceivable. He is the cock of the village. He attempted to murder the prior. He stole one of the chalices. The other monk is the most imbecile and stupid creature in the place. He has lived on in the house for the last fifty years, and does not know how to read."

The ruins of the church stand boldly above the torrent that descends in a series of cascades. The stream may be followed up to the Lake of Isaby, from which it rises.

The basin of Argelez comes abruptly to an end at Pierrefite, surmounted by a ruined castle; here the Pic de Viscos divides, with the chain running from it, the valleys of Luz and of Cauterets; the Gaves from these break out of the cleft rock, for that is what Pierrefite means, on one side and on the other, and here unite. At this point terminates the railway; but hence electric trams ply to Cauterets up one ravine, and to Luz up the other.

The line to Cauterez rises rapidly up steep inclines and describing curves that command views down the chasm where the Gave boils and thunders. A tunnel is entered, passed through, and the view back of the sun-bathed, fertile Valley of Argelez, of the walnuts and chestnuts of S. Savin, is excluded. We have passed from one world into another; from golden sunlight into mountain gloom, from one vegetation to another as well. The rocks add to the effect of transition, for they are of dark schist streaked with ferruginous stains, and there are long spreading refuse slides from the lead mines of Pierrefite, too poisonous to allow any shrub, even grass, to grow on them. There are no gaps up which the eye can look to gleaming snow fields, till all at once we emerge on the basin of Cauterets, where the mountains fall back and open and show us the sunlit snow, and a river dancing down in a fine fall, and before us a bit of Paris dropped out of the clouds into this solitude.

But Cauterets and Luz must be reserved for another chapter.

I cannot quit the radiant Valley of Argelez without a kindly tribute to the simple, warm-hearted peasantry. As I have already said, we spent a summer in a château on the mountain side, high up opposite Argelez. My mother visited the poor cottagers, and where there was sickness did what every English lady would do, sent relief, and did better than that, showed tender sympathy. When we left, in the autumn, to return for the winter to Pau, our carriage was surrounded by the poor people, bringing their humble offerings of stewed pears, grapes, figs, apples, cakes, and we were laden with their gifts, more than we could consume, but were unable to refuse; and what was better still, as we whirled away, were attended by their best wishes, and not a few sincere regrets and tears.