A Book of the Pyrenees/Chapter 12

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Tarbes an uninteresting place—A large village—Inglis on the view—Jardin Massey—Cloister of S. Sever—Horses—The Haras—Counts of Bigorre—Petronilla and her five husbands—Her will—Numerous claimants—A long contest—Tarbes fortified—Sack by the Huguenots—Massacre—The Leaguers—Battle of Tarbes—Retreat of Soult—Barrère—Macaulay on his character.

FROM Tarbes it is possible to escape in four directions, for from it radiate lines to Paris, to Pau, to Bagnières, and to Toulouse, and another is in prospect to Rustan and Mayonac.

No one presumably would stay in Tarbes for two days unless he were an official tied to duties in it and enjoying a salary, or were possessed with a passion for horses. For, indeed, in Tarbes itself there is nothing to be seen save the Haras and the depot for remounts to the cavalry. The cathedral is the most cumbrous, ungainly minster in all France. The public buildings lack interest. One thing Tarbes does possess, that it shares with the meanest village in the same arrondisement—the view of the Pyrenees

Inglis, who trudged the Pyrenees in 1830, thus describes the prospect:—

"I have read in some book that the most beautiful part of every country is where the mountains sink down into the plains, and of this assertion the situation of Tarbes offers an excellent illustration. If I had never gone further into the Pyrenees than Tarbes I might have said that nothing can exceed the beauty of its neighbourhood. The charming plain that environs it—yet not altogether a plain—stretches to the foot of the mountains, rich in every production of the southern latitude, beautifully diversified with wood, and watered by the meanderings of the Adour and of several lesser streams. The celebrated Valley of Bagnères opens to the left, that of Lourdes to the right; while in the south, apparently at but a few leagues distant, the Pic du Midi towers above the range of mountains that extend to the right and to the left, as far as the eye can reach.

"After the long continuation of carriage-travelling from Avignon to Tarbes—oh, how I enjoyed this morning! It was a glorious morning, and the magnificent range of the Pyrenees, rising sharply from the plain, was bathed in sunbeams, which gilded the eminences, reposed on the slopes, and gleamed in among the valleys. If this book should chance to be read by anyone who knows the scenery of Scotland, let him recollect the road from Stirling along the foot of the Ochill Hills, and he will have a better conception of the country through which I am now conveying him, than could be conveyed by a thousand minute descriptions. It is true his imagination must assist me; he must imagine the Ochills seven to eight thousand feet high in place of two thousand; he must substitute Indian corn of the most luxuriant growth, for oats and barley; and, in place of whin-blossoms covering the knolls, he must fancy them clothed with vine; he must add the charm of a southern sky, and the balminess of a southern clime."

Tarbes is a huge, straddling city, a great village giving itself the airs of a capital. On entering it from the station the town has an unattractive aspect. An avenue has been driven from the Gave to the Place Maubourguet, which is the centre of the town; but it has few houses along it, and none of consequence, and these throughout Tarbes have the appearance of villas in a suburb, surrounded with gardens. Some effort has been made to retrieve the ugliness of the town by the erection of fountains and statues, and by planting handsome promenades. But it is a lifeless place, only acquiring animation on the occasion of its fairs. The river strays in its vast bed, broken into several streams by rubble banks. It has been drawn off above the town by numerous channels of irrigation, so that when it reaches Tarbes it is out of proportion to its bed, as might be an infant in the vast fourposter of Ware.

But the Jardin Massey is the pride of Tarbes; it is a park extending over thirty acres—space is no object in Tarbes—and is really interesting. It was the gift to his native town by the man whose name it bears. Massey left Tarbes as a journeyman gardener, and visited Holland, where he obtained a situation as director of the gardens of the king. Louis Philippe summoned him to France, and made him manager of the gardens of Versailles. As he had amassed a good deal of money, he resolved on spending it for the adornment of his native town. He bought the land where now is the park, dug a lake, formed water-courses, planted rare trees, laid out flower-beds and lawns, and built a museum of natural history commanded by a lofty tower. In fifty years the trees have grown to a considerable size; and later benefactors have enriched the gardens with statues, busts, and the museum with sculptures and paintings. In the park has been erected the beautiful cloister of the fifteenth century removed from S. Sever-de-Rustan, a monastery wrecked by the Calvinists, under Lizier, who massacred all the inhabitants of the town, with the exception of seven persons. The monks would have been also put to death but that Queen Jeanne had already suppressed the abbey, and they had been dispersed. Next to the Jardin Massey the Haras should be inspected.

In ancient days the horses of the county of Bigorre, the viscounty of Béarn, and of Lower Navarre were highly esteemed; the race was called Navarrine, and it owed its merits to the fact that it was a cross between the Arab and the native Pyrenean stock. The Saracens had crossed the mountains, overflowed Aquitaine, and threatened Northern France, they were met at Poitiers and routed by Charles Martel in 731. Three hundred thousand Saracens, say the old chroniclers, with their usual exaggeration, fell on the field; the rest fled, the main body to Narbonne, others to such passes as they knew that led to Saragossa. A battle was fought near Tarbes, in which the flying remnant was utterly routed and exterminated. A great number of their stallions and mares remained in the hands of the victors, and it was from this capture that sprang the so much coveted and esteemed race of the Navarrine horse.

By degrees the quality declined and degenerated, reverting to the type of the Basque horse. This was due partly to lack of importation of fresh Arab blood, and partly to the mountaineers neglecting the breeding of horses for that of mules, specially serviceable to them among the mountain passes where were tracks, but no roads. The evil became so great that the Estates of Bigorre voted two thousand livres annually for the maintenance of stallions. During the Revolution, when there was great demand for mounts for the cavalry, the scarcity of good horses attracted the attention of the Council of Five Hundred. Napoleon took the matter in hand with his characteristic energy. In 1806 he founded the Haras at Tarbes, and the introduction of English blood was the basis of the transformation attempted. Later, during the campaigns in Algeria, the finest stallions taken from the Arabs were sent to Tarbes; and the result has been the production of a horse admirably adapted to the use of light cavalry, that goes now by the name of the Tarbes horse. Mm. Simonoff and Mörder, of the Russian haras, thus speak of it:—

"The three bloods of which the Tarbes horse derives—the Arab, the English, and the old Navarrin—are so near to each other, being all of Oriental origin, that the fusion took place easily and quickly; and although as yet the Tarbes horses are not of perfect homogeneity, it is quite possible to speak of them as forming a race which by its qualities, is rather full blood, than half blood."

The stallions are in the Haras at Tarbes, but the mares are dispersed within a radius of twenty kilometres around Tarbes; and the rearing of colts is the industry, and makes the fortune of the department, at all events of the plain and fertile valleys. Within the district where they are reared there is not a village, not a farm, that has not its mares for breeding. Even curés supplement their scanty incomes by keeping them, and rearing from them. One, the Abbé Turon, sold to the State his stallion Mousquetaire for 20,000 francs. This roused a great outcry among the Radicals, who denounced the Government for having bought from a priest. Tarbes is the old capital of Bigorre, and here resided the Count. I have already mentioned Centule I of Béarn, assassinated in 1088, who put away his wife with the approval of Pope Gregory VII, so as to marry the heiress of Bigorre. By this union Bigorre and Béarn were not united, for his son Gaston by the repudiated Gisela became Viscount of Béarn, and his son Bernard III inherited Bigorre. This Bernard left issue, a daughter only, named Beatrice, who married Peter, Viscount de Marsan, by whom she had Centule III, and he also left an heiress, Stephanie, married to Bertrand, Count of Cominges, by whom she had one child, a daughter Petronilla.

The story of the annexation of Bigorre to Foix and Béarn is complicated through the matrimonial vagaries of this same Petronilla. And this was further complicated by the action of a pious ancestor, Count Bernard II, who in a fit of maudlin devotion placed his territory and family under the protection of the black doll, Notre Dame du Puy, promising in return for this protection that the county should annually pay tribute to the church of Le Puy. Certainly Our Lady of Puy treated Bigorre scurvily in return, allowing the inheritance to slip through heiresses, five in all, and, moreover, to involve it in a lawsuit that lasted a hundred and thirty-nine years.

Petronilla married Gaston, Viscount of Béarn, and when he died without issue, in 1215, took as number two Nûnez de Cerdagne, but tired of him speedily, got the marriage annulled, on the convenient plea of consanguinity, and married in 1216 Guy, son of Simon de Montfort. This was sharp work—three husbands in a twelvemonth. By Guy she had two daughters, Alix and Perette. In 1228 she took a fourth husband, Aimart de Rançon, and on his death, in the same year, she espoused her fifth, Boso de Mastas, to whom she bore a daughter, Martha. By her will Petronilla constituted Esquirat, eldest son of her daughter Alix, heir to her estates and titles; but in default of male issue the succession was to go to Jordan, the second son of Alix. Should he fail to have a son, then the second substitution was in favour of Martha, her daughter by Boso, who was married to Gaston VII of Béarn. Esquirat did have a son, also named Esquirat, but this second Esquirat died childless, and bequeathed the county of Bigorre to his sister Lore, as his uncle Jordan had died without issue. Now Petronilla and her third husband Guy de Montfort had left a second daughter, Perette, married to Raoul de Teisson, and had by him a son William de Teisson, who conceived that he had a right to the inheritance. Martha, wife of Gaston de Béarn, had a daughter Constance, and she also put in a claim. In fact, these were the claimants: Lore, Viscountess de Turenne; Constance, Viscountess de Béarn; William de Teisson; and Mahut, daughter of Alix and Raoul de Courtenay. But that was not all. The younger Esquirat had made over his inheritance to Simon de Montfort by a first will, and then, offended at the grasping nature of Simon, had revoked his will and constituted Lore his heiress. But Simon refused to recognize the legality of this second will, sold the viscounty to Thibalt II, King of Navarre, whose son Henry gave his claim to it to Jeanne, his daughter, married to Philip the Fair, King of France, and he was but too ready to acquire this rich district of Gascony on any plea, bad or good. The church of Le Puy also put in a claim, so did the King of England as overlord. Consequently there were from eight to nine claimants.

By decree of Parliament, in 1290, the rights of the church of Le Puy to the charge on the viscounty were confirmed.

Constance, Viscountess of Béarn, occupied Bigorre with her troops, and assumed the title of Countess of Bigorre. Jeanne of France, however, expelled her, adopted the title, and Philip the Fair asserted his right to the territory, and was prepared to maintain it by force of arms. Philip had already bought off the rights of the church of Le Puy. Bigorre remained under the crown of France till Charles VIII in 1425 granted it to John, Count of Foix, in return for his services against the English, and in consideration of his descent from Petronilla.

From 1425 to 1566 the county of Bigorre was wisely administered by the viscounts of Béarn, who had become titular Kings of Navarre.

Tarbes was fortified in the tenth century by Raymond I. It suffered destruction at the hands of the English in 1350 and 1406. But its greatest disasters took place during the Wars of Religion. Jeanne d'Albret was resolved on forcing the Reform on the Bigorriens, but they ejected the Huguenot pastors as fast as they were sent to them, and appealed to the King of France, who sent troops in 1569 to their aid. Jeanne enlisted the services of Montgomery. He swept through the country, ravaging it with fire and sword. He sent his lieutenant, Montamat, to take Tarbes, and Montamat appeared under its walls on 20 January, 1570. The besieged, finding it impossible to hold out, evacuated the city during the night. When the Huguenots entered they found no one in the place, and they pillaged the houses and set them on fire.

When he was gone the inhabitants returned and began to restore their wrecked and gutted houses and to repair the walls. Montamat reappeared, bringing cannons with him. François de Bennasse, commandant of the garrison at Lourdes, had hastened to the defence of the capital at the head of 800 men. Montamat attempted an assault, and was repulsed. But a traitor in the town opened the gates to the Calvinists, and the captain entered. Bonnasse, all his soldiers, and many of the citizens were put to the sword. The number massacred was so great that it took eight days to bury them.

"This took place," says a contemporary writer, "about the feast of Easter, in the year 1570. After that the city of Tarbes remained without inhabitants, and the grass grew in the streets as in a field, a piteous sight to behold. And three whole years elapsed without there being a garrison in it; but indeed the town was incapable of defence on account of the ruins made by the cannon."

Peace was concluded at S. Germain-en-Laye on 15 May, 1570, and it was hoped that tranquillity would ensue. But this was not to be. Passions had been wrought to frenzy, and the thirst for revenge was consuming. The death of Jeanne d'Albret in 1579 did not allay the troubles. In 1592 the town became the prey of the Leaguers of Cominges, and from it they issued to devastate the surrounding country, till expelled in 1594. Almost the whole population of Cominges had embraced the cause of the League. "There was never before seen such disorder, such pillage, from the beginning of these wars. Captains, soldiers, valets, and volunteers were so laden with furniture that they were carrying off that they complained it was a trouble to them to be encumbered with so much spoil. Moreover, in despair, the peasants of Bigorre abandoned the cultivation of the land, and many migrated into Spain."

In 1594 the people themselves rose, and, assisted by Caumont de la Force, delivered themselves from both Leaguers and Protestants, and peace was celebrated at Tarbes.

On 12 March, 1814, a combat took place between the English and Portuguese under Wellington, and the French under Soult. After the defeat of Orthez Soult had withdrawn his dispirited soldiers along both banks of the Adour, steadily pursued by Wellington.

"A light division," says Allison, "and hussars were on the right bank of the Adour; but when they approached the town, a simultaneous movement was made by Hill with the right wing, and Clinton on the left, to envelope and cut off Harispe and Villatte's divisions, which formed the French rearguard in occupation of it.

"The combat began at twelve o'clock by a violent fire from Hill's artillery on the right, which was immediately re-echoed in still louder tones by Clinton on the left; while Alton, with the light division, assailed the centre. The French fought stoutly, and, mistaking the British rifle battalions, from their dark uniforms, to be Portuguese, let them come up to the very muzzles of their guns. But the rifles were hardy veterans, inured to victory; and at length Harispe's men, unable to stand their deadly point-blank fire, broke and fled. If Clintons men on the left had been up at this moment, the French would have been totally destroyed; for Hill had, at the same moment, driven back Villate on the right, and the plain beyond Tarbes was covered with a confused mass of fugitives, closely followed by the shouting of victorious British. But Clinton's troops, notwithstanding the utmost efforts, had not been able to get up; the numerous ditches and hedges which intersected the plain rendered all pursuit impossible; and thus the French, though utterly broken, succeeded with very little loss in reaching a ridge, three miles distant, when Clauzel, who, with four divisions, was drawn up to receive them, immediately opened fire from all his batteries upon the allies."

During the night Soult retired in two columns, and such was the rapidity of his retreat that he reached Toulouse in four days.

A native of Tarbes, of whom the town has no occasion to boast, was Bertrand Barrère, born 10 September, 1755. He was educated for the Bar at Toulouse, and became a scrivener at Toul. As his father owned a pretty estate at Vieuzac, in the Valley of Argelez, he called himself Barrère de Vieuzac, flattering himself that by this feudal addition to his name he might pass for a gentleman. He was sent as deputy for Bigorre to the States-General. Being totally devoid of principle, when the result of a parliamentary struggle could not be foreseen he took the precaution of having in his pocket two speeches, written in opposed senses, so that he could always jump in the direction taken by the cat. Barrère had affected the moderate principles of the Girondists, till he saw that the extremists were the strongest, and then he threw in his lot with the Mountain, and voted for the execution of the King. Then seeing that the current ran strong against the Girondists, he took the foremost place in procuring the condemnation to the scaffold of those with whom he had previously acted in concert. He it was who was set up in the convention to call for the blood of the Queen. On the day on which Marie Antoinette was dragged to execution Barrère regaled Robespierre and other Jacobins at a tavern.

"In the intervals between the Beaume and the Champagne, between the ragout of thrushes and the partridges with truffles, he fervently preached his new political creed. 'The vessel of the Revolution,' he said, 'can float into port only on waves of blood. We must begin with the members of the National Assembly and of the Legislative Assembly. That rubbish must be swept away.'"

The Reign of Terror began. The Jacobins had prevailed all along the line. The Convention was reduced to silence. The sovereignty had passed to the Committee of Public Safety. Six persons held the chief power in the small cabinet which domineered over France: Robespierre, Saint Just, Couthon, Collot, Billaud, and Barrère who had hastily divested himself of his territorial appendix of De Vieuzac. Of the horrors of those days it is unnecessary to speak. As guilty as Robespierre or Couthon was the bland, timorous, unscrupulous Barrère. He it was who proposed the burning of the towns and villages of the Vendéeans, the total destruction of Lyons, the violation of the royal graves at S. Denys, the deportation of all such as could not bring irrecusable proof of patriotism since 1792. He became the declared adversary of Danton when he found it safe to take that part, and proposed his arrest on the 9th Thermidor. He contributed powerfully to the fall of Robespierre; but he had made so many enemies, was so little trusted, that instead of rising higher by the fall of Robespierre, he found himself unable to maintain his balance. He was denounced before the revolutionary tribunal, along with Collot d'Herbois and Billaud-Varennes, and was sentenced to be deported to the pestilential swamps of Cayenne, but obtained the change of his destination to the Isle of Oléron. After having sacrificed his old allies, the Hébertistes, the Dantonistes, and the Robespierristes, he himself had fallen. When moved later from Oléron to Saintes, he succeeded in escaping from prison. The coup d'état of the eighteenth Brumaire restored him to liberty. We need not follow in detail his further adventures. When Louis XVIII gained the throne of his ancestors by the aid of foreign bayonets, Barrère fled to Brussels. The revolution of July put an end to his exile, and he returned to the south of France, and settled at Argelez, where he died 14 January, 1841.

His memoirs in four volumes were published under the editorship of Hippolyte Carnot and David d'Angers, in 1843. They are replete with disingenuousness in the representation of the part he played, as also of falsehoods, that can be proved to be such by reference to the contemporary files of the Moniteur.

Macaulay, at the opening of his long and brilliant essay on Barrère, says:—

"Our opinion is this: that Barrère approached nearer than any person mentioned in history or fiction, whether man or devil, to the idea of consummate and universal depravity. In him the qualities which are the proper objects of hatred, and the qualities which are the proper objects of contempt, preserve an exquisite and absolute harmony. In almost every particular sort of wickedness he has had rivals. His sensuality was immoderate; but this was a failing common to him with many great and amiable men. There have been many men as cowardly as he, some as cruel, a few as mean, a few as impudent. There may also have been as great liars, though we never met with them or read of them. But when we put everything together—sensuality, paltroonery, baseness, effrontery, mendacity, barbarity—the result is something which in a novel we would condemn as a caricature, and to which, we venture to say, no parallel can be found in history."

At the close of the article Macaulay says in reference to Hippolyte Carnot, who states that Barrère was at no time a sceptic, that he was the author of a pious treatise, entitled, Of Christianity and its Influence, as also of a book of meditations on the Psalms:—

"This makes the character complete. Whatsoever things are false, whatsoever things are dishonest, whatsoever things are unjust, whatsoever things are impure, whatsoever things are hateful, whatsoever things are of evil report; if there be any vice, and if there be any infamy, all these things, we knew, were blended in Barrère. But one thing was still wanting, and that M. Hippolyte Carnot has supplied. When to such an assemblage of qualities a high profession of piety is added, the effect is overpowering.

"We have no pleasure in seeing human nature thus degraded. We turn with disgust from the filthy and spiteful Yahoos of the fiction; and the filthiest and most spiteful Yahoo of the fiction was a noble creature when compared with the Barrière of history. But what is no pleasure M. Carnot has made a duty. It is no light thing that a man in high and honourable public trust should come forward to demand approbation for a life black with every sort of wickedness, and unredeemed by a single virtue. This M. Hippolyte Carnot has done. By attempting to enshrine this Jacobin carrion, he has forced us to gibbet it; and we may venture to say that, from the eminence of infamy on which we have placed it, he will not easily take it down."

Strange irony of fate. In Barrère's native town, his victim, Danton, only less detestable than himself, is glorified with a monument, a statue in bronze. After Danton, perhaps Tarbes will erect one to Barrère.