Part 5 out of 6
garden. It was no surprise to learn, later, that these lovely paths and
noble terraces had been the slow achievement of a lover of landscape
gardening, one who, dying, had given this, his master-piece, to his
There is no better place from which to view the beautiful city. From
the horizontal lines of the broad terraces flows the great sweep of the
hillside; it takes a swift precipitous plunge, and rests below in wide
stretches of meadow. The garden itself seemed, by virtue of this
encompassing circle of green, to be only a more exquisitely cultivated
portion of the lovely outlying hills and wooded depths. The cows,
grazing below in the valleys, were whisking their tails, and from the
farm-yards came the crow of the chanticleer.
One turned to look upward--to follow heavenward the soaring glory of the
cathedral towers. From the plane of the streets their geometric
perfection had made their lines seem cold. Through this aerial
perspective the eye followed, enraptured, the perfect Gothic of the
spires and the lower central tower. The great nave roof and the choir
lifted themselves above the turrets and the tiled house-tops of the
city, as gray mountains of stone rise above the huts of pygmies.
Coutances does well to be proud of its cathedral.
The sound of a footstep, crunching the gravel of the garden-walk,
caused us to turn. It was to find, face to face, the hero of the night
before; the celebrated Coutances lawyer was also taking his
constitutional. But not alone, some friends were with him, come up to
town doubtless for the _fete_ or the trial. He was showing them his
city. He stretched a hand forth, with the same magisterial gesture of
the night before, to point out the glory of the prospect lying below
the terrace. He faced the cathedral towers, explaining the points of
their perfection. And then, for he was a Frenchman, he perceived the
presence of two ladies. In an instant his hat was raised, and as
quickly his eyes told us he had seen us before, in the courtroom. The
bow was the lower because of this recognition, and the salute was
accompanied by a grave smile.
Manners in the provinces are still good, you perceive--if only you are
far enough away from Paris.
Someone else also bestowed on us the courtesy of a passing greeting. It
was a cure who was saying his Ave, as he paced slowly, in the sun, up
and down the yew path. He was old; one leg was already tired of
life--it must be dragged painfully along, when one walked in the sun.
The cure himself was not in the least tired of life. His smile was as
warm as the sun as he lifted his _calotte_.
"Surely, mesdames, you will not miss the _fete_? It must be forming
He had taken an old man's, and a priest's, privilege. We were all three
looking down into the valley, which lay below, a pool of freshness. He
had spoken, first of the beauty of the prospect, and then of the great
day. To be young and still strong, to be able to follow the procession
from street to street, and yet to be lingering here among the
roses!--this passed the simple cure's comprehension. The reproach in
his mild old eyes was quickly changed to approval, however; for
upon the announcement that the procession was already in motion we
started, bidding him a hurried adieu.
The huge cathedral portals yawned at the top of the hill; they were
like a gaping chasm. The great place of the cathedral square was half
filled; a part of the procession had passed already beyond the gloom of
the vast aisles into the frank openness of day. Winding in and out of
the white-hung streets a long line of figures was marching; part of the
line had reached the first reposoir and gradually the swaying of the
heads was slackening, as, by twos and twos, the figures stopped.
Still, from between the cathedral doors an unending multitude of people
kept pouring forth upon the cathedral square. Now it was an
interminable line of young girls, first communicants, in their white
veils and gowns; against the grays and browns of the cathedral facade
this mass of snow was of startling purity--a great white rose of light.
Closely following the dazzling line marched a grave company of nuns;
with their black robes sweeping the flower-strewn streets, the pallor
of their faces, and the white wings of their huge coifs, they might
have been so many marble statues moving with slow, automatic step,
repeating in life the statues in stone above their heads, incarnations
of meek renunciation. With the free and joyous step of a vigorous youth
not yet tamed to complete self-obliteration, next there stepped forth
into the sun a group of seminarists. In the lace and scarlet of their
bright robes they were like unto so many young kings. High in the
summer air they swung their golden censers; from huge baskets, heaped
with flowers, they scattered flowers as they swayed, in the grace of
their youth, from side to side, with priestly rhythmic motion.
In the days of Greece, under the Attic tent of sky, it was Jove that
was thus worshipped; here in Coutances, under the paler, less ardent
blue of France, it was the Christian God these youths were honoring. So
men have continued to scatter flowers; to swing incense; to bend the
knee; surely in all ages the long homage of men, like the procession
here before us, has been but this--the longing to worship the
Invisible, and to make the act one with beauty.
Is it Greek, is it Christian, this festival? If it be Catholic, it is
also pagan. It is as composite a union of religious ceremonials as man
is himself an aggregate of lost types, for there is a subtle law of
repetition which governs both men and ceremonials.
How pagan was the color! how Greek the sense of beauty that lies in
contrasts! how Jewish the splendor of the priestly vestments as the
gold and silver tissues gleamed in the sun! How mediaeval this survival
of an old miracle play! See this group of children, half-frightened,
half-proud, wandering from side to side as children unused to walking
soberly ever march. They were following the leadership of a huge
Suisse. This latter was magnificently apparelled. He carried a great
mace, and this he swung high in the air. The children, little John the
Baptist, Christ, Mary the Mother, and Magdalen, were magnetized by his
mighty skill. They were looking at the golden stick; they were thinking
only of how high he, this splendid giant who terrified them so, would
throw it the next time, and if he would always surely catch it. The
small Virgin, in her long brown robes, tripped as she walked. The
cherubic John the Baptist, with only his sheepskin and his cross,
shivered as he stumbled after her.
"At least they might have covered his arms, _le pauvre petit_," one
stout peasant among the bystanders was Christian enough to mutter,
"Poor little John!" Even in summer the sun is none too hot on this
hill-top; and a sheepskin is a garment one must be used to, it appears.
Christ, himself, was no better off. He was wearing his crown of thorns,
but he had only his night-dress, bound with a girdle, to keep his naked
little body warm. An angel, in gossamer wings and a huge rose-wreath,
being of the other sex, had her innate woman's love of finery to make
her oblivious to the light sting of the wind, as it passed through her
draperies. As this group in the procession moved slowly along, the city
took on a curiously antique aspect. In every lattice window a head was
framed. The lines of the townspeople pressed closer and closer; they
made a serried mass of blouses and caps, of shiny coats and bared
heads. The very houses seemed to recognize that a part of their own
youth was passing them by; these were the figures they had looked out
upon, time after time, in the old fourteenth and fifteenth century
days, when the great miracle plays drew the country around, for miles
and miles, to this Coutances square.
Across the square, in the long gray distance of the streets, the
archbishop's canopy was motionless. A sweet groaning murmur rippled
from lip to lip.
Then a swift and mighty rustling filled the air, for the bones of
thousands of knees were striking the stones of the street;--even
heretic knees were bent when the Host was lifted. It was the moment of
silent prayer. It was also, perhaps, the most beautiful, it was
assuredly the most consummately picturesque moment of the day. The bent
heads; the long vistas of kneeling figures; the lovely contrasts of the
flowing draperies; the trailing splendor of the priests' robes dying
into the black note made by the nuns' sombre skirts; the gossamer
brilliance of the hundreds of white veils, through which the young
rapture of religious awe on lips and brow made even commonplace
features beautiful; the choristers' scarlet petticoats; the culminating
note of splendor, the Archbishop, throned like some antique scriptural
king under the feathers and velvets of his crimson canopy; then the
long lines of the townspeople with the groups of peasants beside them,
whose well-sunned skins made even their complexion seem pale by the
side of cheeks that brought the burn of noon-suns in the valleys to
mind; and behind this wall of kneeling figures, those other walls, the
long white-hung house facades, with their pendent sprigs and wreaths
and garlands above which hung the frieze of human heads beneath the
carved cornices; surely this was indeed the culminating moment, both in
point of beauty and in impressiveness, of the great day's festival.
Thus was reposoir after reposoir visited. Again and again the multitude
was on its knees. Again and again the Host was lifted. And still we
followed. Sometimes all the line was in full light, a long perspective
of color and of prismatic radiance. And then the line would be lost;
some part of it was still in a side-street; and the rest were singing
along the edges of the city's ramparts, under the great branches of the
trees. Here, in the gray of the narrow streets, the choristers' gowns
were startling in their richness. Yonder, in full sunlight, the
brightness on the maidens' robes made the shadows in their white skirts
as blue as light caught in a grotto's depth.
Still they sang. In the dim streets or under the trees, where the gay
banners were still fluttering, and the white veils, like airy sails,
were bulging in the wind, the hymn went on. It was thin and
pathetically weak in the mouths of the babes that walked. It was clear,
as fresh and pure as a brooklet's ripple, from the mouths of the young
communicants. It was of firm contralto strength from the throats of the
grave nuns. The notes gained and gained in richness; the hymn was
almost a chant with the priests; and in the mouths of the people it was
as a ringing chorus. Together with the swelling music swung the incense
into high air; and to the Host the rose-leaves were flung.
Still we followed. Still the long line moved on from altar to altar.
Then, when the noon was long past, wearily we climbed upward to our
In the high streets there was much going to and fro. The shop-keepers
already were taking down their linen. Pouffe! Pouffe! there was much
blowing through mouths and a great standing on tiptoes to reach the
tall tapers on the reposoirs.
Coutances was pious. Coutances was proud of its fete. But Coutances was
also a thrifty city. Once the cortege had passed, it was high time to
snuff out the tapers. Who could stand by and see good candles blowing
uselessly in the wind, and one's money going along with the dripping?
BY LAND TO MONT ST. MICHEL.
Two hours later the usual collection of forces was assembled in our inn
courtyard; for a question of importance was to be decided. Madame was
there--chief of the council; her husband was also present, because he
might be useful in case any dispute as to madame's word came up;
Auguste, the one inn waiter, was an important figure of the group;
for he, of them all, was the really travelled one; he had seen the
world--he was to be counted on as to distances and routes; and above,
from the upper windows, the two ladies of the bed-chamber looked down,
to act as chorus to the brisk dialogue going on between madame and the
owner of a certain victoria for which we were in treaty.
"_Ces dames,_" madame said, with a shrug which was meant for the
coachman, and a smile which was her gift to us--"these ladies wish to
go to Mont St. Michel, to drive there. Have you your little victoria
Now, by the shrug madame had conveyed to the man and the assembled
household generally, her own great scorn of us, and of our plans. What
a whim this, of driving, forsooth, to the Mont! _Dieu sait_--French
people were not given to any such follies; they were serious-minded,
_always_, in matters of travel. To travel at all, was no light thing;
one made one's will and took an honest and tearful farewell of one's
family, when one went on a journey. But these English, these Americans,
there's no foretelling to what point their folly will make them tempt
fate! However, madame was one who knew on which side her bread was
buttered, if ever a woman did, and the continuance of these mad follies
helped to butter her own French roll. And so her shrug and wink
conveyed to the tall Norman just how much these particular lunatics
before them would be willing to pay for this their whim.
"Have you Poulette?"
"Yes--yes--Poulette is at home. I have made her repose herself all
day--hearing these ladies had spoken of driving to the Mont--"
Chorus from the upper window-sills. "The poor beast! it is _joliment
"As these ladies observe," continued the owner of the doomed animal,
not raising his head, but quickly acting on the hint, "it is long, the
distance--one does not go for nothing." And though the man kept his
mouth from betraying him, his keen eyes glittered with avarice.
"And then--_ces dames_ must descend at Genets, to cross the _greve, tu
sais_" interpolated the waiter, excitedly changing his napkin, his wand
of office, from one armpit to the other. The thought of travel stirred
his blood. It was fine--to start off thus, without having to make the
necessary arrangements for a winter's service or a summer's season. And
to drive, that would be new--yes that would be a change indeed from the
stuffy third-class compartments. For Auguste, you see, approved of us
and of the foolishness of our plans. His sympathy being gratis, was
allied to the protective instinct--he would see the cheating was at
least as honestly done as was compatible with French methods.
"Another carriage--and why?" we meekly queried, warned by this friendly
hint. A chorus now arose from the entire audience.
"_Mais, madame!_--it is as much as five or six kilos over the sands to
the Mont from Genets!" was cried out in a tone of universal reproach.
"Through rivers, madame, through rivers as high as that!" and Auguste,
striking in after the chorus, measured himself off at the breast.
"Yes--the water comes to there, on the horse," added the driver,
sweeping an imaginary horse's head, with a fine gesture, in the air.
"Dame, that must be fine to see," cried down Leontine and Marie,
gasping with little sighs of envy.
"And so it is!" cried back Auguste, nodding upward with dramatic
gesture. "One can get as wet as a duck splashing through those rivers.
_Dieu! que c'est beau!_" And he clasped his hands as his eye, rolling
heavenward, caught the blue and the velvet of the four feminine orbs on
its upward way. Seeing which ecstasy, the courtyard visibly relented;
Auguste's rapture and his envy had worked the common human miracle of
turning contempt for a folly into belief in it.
This quick firing of French people to a pleasurable elation in others'
adventure is, I think we must all agree, one of the great charms of
this excitable race: anything will serve as a pretext for setting this
sympathetic vibration in motion. What they all crave as a nation is a
daily, hourly diet of the unusual, the unforeseen.
It is this passion for incident which makes a Frenchman's life not
unlike his soups, since in the case of both, how often does he make
something out of nothing!
An hour later we were picking our way through the city's streets.
Sweeter than the crushed flowers was the free air of the valley.
There is no way of looking back so agreeable, on the whole, I think, as
to look back upon a city.
From the near distance of the first turn in the road, Coutances and its
cathedral were at their very best. The hill on which both stood was
only one of the many hills we now saw growing out of the green valley;
among the dozen hill tops, this one we were leaving was only more
crowded than the others, and more gloriously crowned. In giant height
uprose, above the city's roofs and the lesser towers, the spires and
the lovely lantern tower. This vast mass of stone, pricked into lacy
apertures and with its mighty lines of grace-for how many a long
century has it been in the eye of the valley? Tancrede de Hauteville
saw it before William was born--before he, the Conqueror, rode in his
turn through the green lanes to consecrate the church to One greater
than he. From Tancrede to Boileau, what a succession of bishops, each
in their turn, have had their eye on the great cathedral. There was a
sort of viking bishop, one Geoffrey de Montbray, of the Conqueror's
day, who, having a greater taste for men's blood than their
purification, found Coutances a dull city; there was more war of the
kind his stout arm rejoiced in across the Channel; and so he travelled
a bit to do a little pleasant killing. From Geoffrey to Boileau and the
latter's lacy ruffles--how many a rude Norman epic was acted out, here
in the valley, beneath the soaring spires, before the Homeric combat
was turned into the verse of a _chanso de geste_, a _Roman de Rou_, or
As Poulette rolled the wheels along, instead of visored bishop, or mail
rustling on strong breasts, there was the open face of the landscape,
and the tremble of the grasses beneath the touch of the wind. Coming
down the hill was a very peaceable company; doubtless, between wars in
those hot fighting centuries, just such travellers went up and down the
hill-road as unconcernedly as did these peasants. There was quite a
variety among the present groups: some were strictly family parties;
these talked little, giving their mind to stiff walking--the smell of
the soup in the farmyard kitchen was in their nostrils. The women's
ages were more legibly read in their caps than in their faces--the
older the women the prettier the caps. Among these groups, queens of
the party, were some first communicants. Their white kid slippers were
brown now, from the long walk in the city streets and the dust of the
highway. They held their veils with a maiden's awkwardness; with bent
heads they leaned gravely on their fathers' arms. In this, their first
supreme experience of self-consciousness, they had the self-absorption
of young brides. The trail of their muslin gowns and the light cloud of
their veils made dazzling spots of brightness in the delicate frame of
the June landscape. Each of these white-clad figures was followed by a
long train of friends and relatives. "_C'est joli a voir_--it's a
pretty sight, _hein_, my ladies? these young girls are beautiful like
that!" Our coachman took his eye off Poulette to turn in his seat,
looking backward at the groups as they followed in our wake. "Ah--it
was hard to leave my own--I had two like that, myself, in the
procession to-day." And the full Norman eye filled with a sudden
moisture. This was a more attractive glitter than the avarice of a
"You see, mesdames," he went on, as if wishing to excuse the moistened
eyelids, "you see--it's a great day in the family when our children
take their first communion. It is the day the child dies and the man,
the woman is born. When our children kneel at our feet, before the
priest, before their comrades, and beg us to forgive them all the sin
they have done since they were born--it is too much--the heart grows so
big it is near to bursting. Ah--it is then we all weep!"
Charm settled herself in her seat with a satisfied smile. "We are in
luck--an emotional coachman who weeps and talks! The five hours will
fly," she murmured. Then aloud, to Jacques--as we learned the now
sniffling father was called--she presently asked, with the oil of
encouragement in her tone:
"You say your two were in the procession?"
"Two! there were five in all. Even the babies walked. Did you see Jesu
and the Magdalen? They were mine--_C'etait a moi, ca!_ For the priests
will have them--as many as they can get."
"They are right. If the children didn't walk, how could the procession
be so fine?" "Fine--_beau--ca?_" And there was a deep scorn in
Jacques's voice. "You should have seen the _fete_ twenty years ago!
Now, its glory is as nothing. It's the priests themselves who are to
blame. They've spoiled it all. Years ago, the whole town walked.
_Dieu_--what a spectacle! The mayor, the mairie, all the firemen,
municipal officers--yes, even the soldiers walked. And as for the
singing--_dame_, all the young men were choristers then--we were
trained for months. When we walked and sang in the open streets the
singing filled all the town. It was like a great thunder."
"And the change--why has it come?" persisted Charm.
"Oh," Jacques replied, caressing Poulette's haunches with his
whip-lash. "It's the priests; they were too grasping. They are
avaricious, that's what they are. They want everything for themselves.
And a _fete--ca coule, vous savez_. Besides, the spirit of the
times has changed. People aren't so devout now. _Libres
penseurs_--that's the fashion now. _Hola_, Poulette!"
Poulette responded. She dashed into the valley, below us now, as if
this rolling along of a heavy victoria, a lot of luggage, and three
travellers, was an agreeable episode in her career of toil. But on the
mind of her owner, the spectre of the free-thinkers was still hovering
like an evil spirit. During the next hour he gave us a long and
exhaustive exposition of the changes wrought by _ces messieurs qui
nient le bon Dieu._ Among their crimes was to be numbered that of
having disintegrated the morale of the peasantry. They--the
peasants--no longer believed in miracles, and as for sorcery, for the
good old superstitions, bah: they were looked upon as old wives' tales.
Even here, in the heart of this rural country, you would have to walk
far before you could find _vne vraie sorciere_, one who, by looking
into a glass of water, for instance, could read the future as in a
book, or one who, if your cow dried up, could name the evil spirit, the
demon, who, among the peasants was exercising the curse. All this
science was lost. A peasant would now be ashamed to bring his cow to a
fortune-teller; all the village would laugh. Even the shepherds had
lost the power of communing with the planets at night; and all the
valley read the _Petit Journal_ instead of consulting the _vieilles
meres_. One must go as far as Brittany to see a real peasant with the
superstitions of a peasant. As for Normandy, it went in step with the
rest of the world, _que diable!_ And again the whip lash descended.
Poulette must suffer for Jacques's disgust.
If the Norman peasant was a modern, his country, at least, had retained
the charm of its ancient beauty. The road was as Norman a highway as
one could wish to see. It had the most capricious of natures, turning
and perversely twisting among the farms and uplands. The land was
ribboned with growing grain, and the June grass was being cut. The
farms stood close upon the roadway, as if longing for its
companionship; and then, having done so much toward the establishment
of neighborly gossip, promptly turned their backs upon it--true
Normans, all of them, with this their appearance of frankness and their
real reserves of secrecy.
For a last time we caught a distant glimpse of the great cathedral. As
we looked back across the bright-roofed villages, we saw the stately
pile, gray, glorious, superb, dominating the scene, the hills, river,
and fields, as in the old days the great city walls and the cathedral
towers had dominated all the human life that played helplessly about
We were out once more among the green and yellow broadlands; between
our carriage-wheels and the horizon there was now spread a wide
amphitheatre of wooded hills. The windings of the poplar-lined road
serpentined in sinuous grace in and out of forests, meadows, hills, and
islands. The afternoon lights were deepening; the shadows on the grain-
fields cast by the oaks and beeches were a part of our company. The
blue bloom of the distant hills was strengthening into purple. As the
light was intensifying in color, the human life in the fields was
relaxing its tension; the bent backs were straightening, the ploughmen
were whipping their steeds toward the open road; for although it was
Sunday, and a _fete_ day, the farmer must work. The women were
gathering up some of the grasses, tying them into bundles, and tossing
them on their heads as they moved slowly across the blackening earth.
One field near us was peopled with a group of girls resting on their
scythes. One or two among them were mopping their faces with their
coarse blue aprons; the faces of all were aflame with the red of rude
health. As we came upon them, some had flung away their scythes, the
tallest among the group grasping a near companion, playfully, in the
pose of a wrestler. In an instant the company was turned into a group
of wrestlers. There was a great shout of laughter, as maiden after
maiden was tumbled over on her back or face amid the grasses. Sabots,
short skirts, kerchiefs, scarlet arms rose and fell to earth in the mad
whirl of their gayety.
"Stop, Jacques, I must see the end," cried Charm. "Will they fight or
dance, I wonder!"
"Oh, it is a pure Georgic--they'll dance." They were dancing already.
The line, with dishevelled hair, aprons and kerchiefs askew, had formed
into the square of a quadrille. A rude measure was tripped; a snatch of
song, shouted amid the laughter, gave rhythm to the measure, and then
the whole band, singing in chorus, linked arms and swept with a furious
dash beneath the thatched roof of a low farm-house.
"As you see, my ladies, sometimes the fields are gay--even now," was
Jacques's comment. "But they should be getting their grasses in--for
it'll rain before night. It's time to sing when the scythe sleeps--as
we say here."
To our eyes there were no signs of rain. The clouds rolling in the blue
sea above us were only gloriously lighted. But the birds and the
peasants knew their sky; there was a great fluttering of wings among
the branches; and the peasants, as we rattled in and out of the
hamlets, were pulling the _reposoirs_ to pieces in the haste that
predicts bad weather. They had been "celebrating" all along the road;
and besides the piety, the Norman thrift was abroad upon the highway.
Women were tearing sheets off the house facades; the lads and girls
were bearing crosses, china vases, and highly-colored Virgins from the
wooden altars into the low houses.
Presently the great drops fell; they beat upon the smooth roadway like
so many hard bits of coin. In less than two ticks of the clock, the
world was a wet world; there were masses of soft gray clouds that were
like so much cotton, dripping with moisture. The earth was as drenched
as if, half an hour ago, it had not been a jewel gleaming in the sun;
and the very farm-houses had quickly assumed an air of having been
caught out in the rain without an umbrella. The farm gardens alone
seemed to rejoice in the suddenness of the shower. Flowers have a way
of shining, when it rains, that proves flower-petals have a woman's
love of solitaires.
There were other dashes of color that made the gray landscape
astonishingly brilliant. Some of the peasants on their way to the
village _fetes_ were also caught in the passing shower. They had opened
their wide blue and purple umbrellas; these latter made huge disks of
color reflected in the glass of the wet macadam. The women had turned
their black alpaca and cashmere skirts inside out, tucking the edges
about their stout hips; beneath the wide vivid circles of the dripping
umbrellas these brilliantly colored under-petticoats showed a liberal
revelation of scarlet hose and thick ankles sunk in the freshly
polished black sabots. The men's cobalt-blue blouses and their peaked
felt hats spotted the landscape with contrasting notes and outlines.
After the last peaked hat had disappeared into the farm enclosures, we
and the wet landscape had the rain to ourselves. The trees now were
spectral shapes; they could not be relied on as companions. Even the
gardens and grain lands were mysteriously veiled, so close rolled the
mists to our carriage-wheels. Beyond, at the farthest end of the road,
these mists had formed themselves into a solid, compact mass.
The clouds out yonder, far ahead, seemed to be enwrapping some part of
earth that had lanced itself into the sky.
After a little the eyes unconsciously watched those distant woolly
masses. There was a something beyond, faint, vague, impalpable as yet,
which the rolling mists begirt as sometimes they cincture an Alpine
needle. Even as the thought came, a sudden lifting--of the gray mass
showed the point of a high uplifted pinnacle. The point thereof pricked
the sky. Then the wind, like a strong hand, swept the clouds into a
mantle, and we saw the strange spectacle no more.
For several miles our way led us through a dim, phantasmal landscape.
All the outlines were blurred. Even the rain was a veil; it fell
between us and the nearest hedgerows as if it had been a curtain. The
jingling of Poulette's bell-collar and the gurgle of the water rushing
in the gulleys--these were the only sounds that fell upon the ear.
Still the clouds about that distant mass curled and rolled; they were
now breaking, now re-forming--as if some strange and wondrous thing
were hanging there--between heaven and earth.
It was still far out, the mass; even the lower mists were not resting
on any plain of earth. They also were moved by something that moved
beneath them, as a thick cloak takes the shape and motion of the body
it covers. Still we advanced, and still the great mountain of cloud
grew and grew. And then there came a little lisping, hissing sound. It
was the kiss of the sea as it met some unseen shore. And on our cheeks
the sea-wind blew, soft and salty to the lips.
The mass was taking shape and outline. The mists rolled along some
wide, broad base that rested beneath the sea, and skyward they clasped
the apexal point of a pyramid.
This pyramid in the sky was Mont St. Michel.
With its feet in the sea, and its head vanishing into infinity--here,
at last, was this rock of rocks, caught, phantom-like, up into the very
It loomed out of the spectral landscape--itself the superlative
spectre; it took its flight upward as might some genius of beauty
enrobed in a shroud of mystery.
Such has it been to generations of men. Beautiful, remote, mysterious!
With its altars and its shrines, its miracle of stone carved by man on
those other stones hewn by the wind and the tempest, Mont St. Michel
has ever been far more a part of heaven than a thing of earth.
Then, for us, the clouds suddenly lifted, as, for modern generations of
men, the mists of superstition have also rolled themselves away.
MONT ST. MICHEL:
AN INN ON A ROCK.
[Illustration: MONT SAINT MICHEL]
BY SEA TO THE POULARD INN.
We were being tossed in the air like so many balls. A Normandy _char a
banc_ was proving itself no respecter of nice distinctions in
conditions in life. It phlipped, dashed, and rolled us about with no
more concern than if it were taking us to market to be sold by the
pound. For we were on the _greve_. The promised rivers were before us.
So was the Mont, spectral no longer, but nearing with every plunge
forward of our sturdy young Percheron. Locomotion through any new or
untried medium is certain to bring with the experiment a dash of
elation. Now, driving through water appears to be no longer the fashion
in our fastidious century; someone might get a wetting, possibly, has
been the conclusion of the prudent. And thus a very innocent and
exciting bit of fun has been gradually relegated among the lost arts of
We were taking water as we had never taken it before, and liking the
method. We were as wet as ducks, but what cared we? We were being
deluged with spray; the spume of the sea was spurting in our faces with
the force of a strong wet breeze, and still we liked it. Besides,
driving thus into the white foam of the waters, over the sand ridges,
across the downs, into the wide plains of wet mud, this was the old
classical way of going up to the Mont. Surely, what had been found good
enough as a pathway for kings and saints and pilgrims should be good
enough for two lovers of old-time methods. The dike yonder was built
for those who believe in the devil of haste, and for those who also
serve him faithfully.
Someone else besides ourselves was enjoying our drive through the
waves. Our gay young Normandy driver seemed to find an exquisite relish
in the spectacle of our wet faces and unstable figures. He could not
keep his eyes off us; they fairly glistened with the dew of his
enjoyment. Two ladies pitched and rolled about, exactly as if they were
peasants, and laughing as if they were children--this was a spectacle
and a keen appreciation of a joke that brought joy to a rustic
"Ah--ah! mesdames!" he cried, exultingly, between the gasps of his own
laughter, as he tossed his own fine head in the air, sitting on his
rude bench, covered with sheepskin, as if it had been an armchair. "Ah,
ah! mesdames, you didn't expect this, _hein_? You hoped for a landau,
and feathers and cushions, perhaps? But soft feathers and springs are
not for the _greve_."
"Is it dangerous? are there deep holes?"
"Oh, the holes, they are as nothing. It is the quicksands we fear. But
it is only a little danger, and danger makes the charm of travel, is it
not so, my ladies? Adventure, that is what one travels for! _Hui!_ Fend
It had occurred to us before that we had been uncommonly lucky in our
coachmen, as well as in the names of the horses, that had brightened
our journey. In spite of Juliet, whose disdain of the virtue or the
charm that lies in a name is no more worthy of respect than is any
lover's opinion when in the full-orbed foolishness of his lunacy, I
believe names to be a very effective adjunct to life's scenic setting.
Most of the horses we had had along these Normandy high-roads, had
answered to names that had helped to italicize the features of the
country. Could Poulette, the sturdy little mare, with whom only an hour
ago we had parted forever, have been given a better sobriquet by which
to have identified for us the fat landscape? And now here was Fend
l'Air proving good his talent for cleaving through space, whatever of
land or sea lay in his path.
"And he merits his name, my lady," his driver announced with grave
pride, as he looked at the huge haunches with a loving eye. "He can go,
oh, but as the wind! It is he who makes of the crossing but as if it
The crossing! That was the key-note of the way the coast spoke of the
Mont. The rock out yonder was a country apart, a bit of land or stone
the shore claimed not, had no part in, felt to be as remote as if it
were a foreign province. At Genets the village spoke of the Mont as one
talks of a distant land. Even the journey over the sands was looked
upon with a certain seriousness. A starting forth was the signal for
the village to assemble about the _char-a-banc's_ wheels. Quite a large
company for a small village to muster was grouped about our own
vehicle, to look on gravely as we mounted to the rude seat within. The
villagers gave us their "_bonjours_" with as much fervor as if we were
starting forth on a sea voyage.
"You will have a good crossing!" cackled one of the old men, nodding
toward the peak in the sky.
"The sands may be wet, but they are firm already!" added a huge
peasant--the fattest man in all the canton, whisperingly confided the
landlady, as one proud of possessing a village curiosity.
"_Hui_, Fend l'Air! _attention, toi!_" Fend l'Air tossed his fine mane,
and struck out with a will over the cobbles. But his driver was only
posing for the assembled village. He was in no real haste; there was a
fresh voice singing yonder in his mother's tavern; the sentimentalist
in him was on edge to hear the end of the song.
"Do you hear that, mesdames? There's no such singing as that out of
Paris. One must go to a cafe--"
"_Allons, toi!_" shrieked his mother's voice, as her face darkened. "Do
you think these ladies want to spend the night on the _greve_?
_Depeches-toi, vaurien!_" And she gave the wheels a shove with her
strong hand, whereat all the village laughed. But the good-for-nothing
son made no haste as the song went on--
"_Le bon vin me fait dormir,
L'amour me reveil--_"
He continued to cock his head on one side and to let his eyes dream a
Within, a group of peasants was gathered about the inn table. There
were some young girls seated among the blouses; one of them, for the
hour that we had sat waiting for Fend l'Air to be captured and
harnessed, had been singing songs of questionable taste in a voice of
such contralto sweetness as to have touched the heart of a bishop.
"Some young girls from the factories at Avranches, mesdames, who come
here Sundays to get a bit of fresh air; _Dieu soit si elles en ont
besoin, pauvres enfants!_" was the landlady's charitable explanation.
It appeared to us that the young ladies from Avranches were more in
need of a moral than a climatic change. But then, we also charitably
reflected, it makes all the difference in the world, in these nice
questions of taste and morality, whether one has had as an inheritance
a past of Francis I. and a Rabelais, or of Calvin and a Puritan
The geese on the green downs, just below the village, had clearly never
even heard of Calvin; they were luxuriating in a series of plunges into
the deep pools in a way to prove complete ignorance of nice sabbatarian
With our first toss upon the downs, a world of new and fresh
experiences began. Genets was quite right; the Mont over yonder was
another country; even at the very beginning of the journey we learned
so much. This breeze blowing in from the sea, that had swept the
ramparts of the famous rock, was a double extract of the sea essence;
it had all the salt of the sea and the aroma of firs and wild flowers;
its lips had not kissed a garden in high air without the perfume
lingering, if only to betray them. Even this strip of meadow marsh had
a character peculiar to itself; half of it belonged to earth and half
to the sea. You might have thought it an inland pasture, with its herds
of cattle, its flocks of sheep, and its colonies of geese--patrolled by
ragged urchins. But behold, somewhere out yonder the pasture was lost
in high sea-waves; ships with bulging sails replaced the curve of the
cattle's sides, and instead of bending necks of sheep, there were
seagulls swooping down upon the foamy waves.
As the incarnation of this dual life of sea and land, the rock stands.
It also is both of the sea and the land. Its feet are of the
waters--rocks and stones the sea-waves have used as playthings these
millions of years. But earth regains possession as the rocks pile
themselves into a mountain. Even from this distance, one can see the
moving arms of great trees, the masses of yellow flower-tips that dye
the sides of the stony hill, and the strips of green grass here and
there. So much has nature done for this wonderful pyramid in the sea.
Then man came and fashioned it to his liking. He piled the stones at
its base into titanic walls; he carved about its sides the rounded
breasts of bastions; he piled higher and higher up the dizzy heights a
medley of palaces, convents, abbeys, cloisters, to lay at the very top
the fitting crown of all, a jewelled Norman-Gothic cathedral.
Earth and man have thrown their gauntlet down to the sea--this rock is
theirs, they cry to the waves and the might of oceans. And the sea
laughs--as strong men laugh when boys are angry or insistent. She has
let them build and toil, and pray and fight; it is all one to her what
is done on the rock--whether men carve its stones into lace, or rot and
die in its dungeons; it is all the same to her whether each spring the
daffodils creep up within the crevices and the irises nod to them from
It is all one to her. For twice a day she recaptures the Mont. She
encircles it with the strong arm of her tides; with the might of her
waters she makes it once more a thing of the sea.
The tide was rising now.
The fringe of the downs had dabbled in the shoals till they had become
one. We had left behind the last of the shepherd lads, come out to the
edge of the land to search for a wandering kid. We were all at once
plunging into high water. Our road was sunk out of sight; we were
driving through waves as high as our cart-wheels. Fend l'Air was
shivering; he was as a-tremble as a woman. The height of the rivers was
not to his liking.
"_Sacre faineant!_" yelled his owner, treating the tremor to a mighty
crack of the whip.
"Is he afraid?"
"Yes--when the water is as high as that, he is always afraid. Ah, there
he is--_diantre_, but he took his time!" he growled, but the growl was
set in the key of relief. He was pointing toward a figure that was
leaping toward us through the water. "It is the guide!" he added, in
The guide was at Fend l'Air's shoulder. Very little of him was above
water, but that little was as brown as an Egyptian. He was puffing and
blowing like unto a porpoise. In one hand he held a huge pitchfork--the
trident of this watery Mercury.
"Shall I conduct you?" he asked, dipping the trident as if in salute,
into the water, as he still puffed and gasped.
"If you please," as gravely responded our driver. For though up to our
cart-wheels and breasts in deep water, the formalities were not to be
dispensed with, you understand. The guide placed himself at once in
front of Fend l'Air, whose shivers as quickly disappeared.
"You see, mesdames--the guide gives him courage--and he now knows no
fear," cried out with pride our whip on the outer bench. "And what
news, Victor--is there any?" It was of the Mont he was asking. And the
guide replied, taking an extra plunge into deep water:
"Oh, not much. There's to be a wedding tomorrow and a pilgrimage the
next day. Madame Poulard has only a handful as yet. _Ces dames_ descend
doubtless at Madame Poulard's--_celle qui fait les omelettes?_" The
ladies were ignorant as yet of the accomplishments of the said
landlady; they had only heard of her beauty.
"_C'est elle_," gravely chorussed the guide and the driver, both
nodding their heads as their eyes met. "_Fameuse, sa beaute, comme son
omelette_," as gravely added our driver.
The beauty of this lady and the fame of her omelette were very
sobering, apparently, in their effects on the mind; for neither guide
nor driver had another word to say.
Still the guide plunged into the rivers, and Fend l'Air followed him.
Our cart still pitched and tossed--we were still rocked about in our
rough cradle. But the sun, now freed from the banks of clouds, was
lighting our way with a great and sudden glory. And for the rest of our
watery journey we were conscious only of that lighting. Behind the
Mont, lay a vast sea of saffron. But it was in the sky; against it the
great rock was as black as if the night were upon it. Here and there,
through the curve of a flying buttress, or the apertures of a pierced
parapet, gay bits of this yellow world were caught and framed. The sea
lay beneath like a quiet carpet; and over this carpet ships and sloops
swam with easy gliding motion, with sails and cordage dipped in gold.
The smaller craft, moored close to shore, seemed transfigured as in a
fog of gold. And nearer still were the brown walls of the Mont making a
great shadow, and in the shadow the waters were as black as the skin of
an African. In the shoals there were lovely masses of turquoise and
palest green; for here and there a cloudlet passed, to mirror their
complexions in the translucent pools.
But Fend l'Air's hoofs had struck a familiar note. His iron shoes were
clicking along the macadam of the dike. There was a rapid dashing
beneath the great walls; a sudden night of darkness as we plunged
through an open archway into a narrow village street; a confused
impression of houses built into side-walls; of machicolated gateways;
of rocks and roof-tops tumbling about our ears; and within the street
was sounding the babel of a shrieking troop of men and women. Porters,
peasants, lads, and children were clamoring about our cart-wheels like
unto so many jackals. The bedlam did not cease as we stopped before a
wide, brightly-lit open doorway.
Then through the doorway there came a tall, finely-featured brunette.
She made her way through the yelling crowd as a duchess might cleave a
path through a rabble. She was at the side of the cart in an instant.
She gave us a bow and smile that were both a welcome and an act of
appropriation. She held out a firm, soft, brown hand. When it closed on
our own, we knew it to be the grasp of a friend, and the clasp of one
who knew how to hold her world. But when she spoke the words were all
of velvet, and her voice had the cadence of a caress.
"I have been watching you, _cheres dames_--crossing the _greve_--but
how wet and weary you must be! Come in by the fire, it is ablaze
now--I have been feeding it for you!" And once more the beautifully
curved lips parted over the fine teeth, and the exceeding brightness of
the dark eyes smiled and glittered in our own. The caressing voice
still led us forward, into the great gay kitchen; the touch of skilful,
discreet fingers undid wet cloaks and wraps; the soft charm of a lovely
and gracious woman made even the penetrating warmth of the huge
fire-logs a secondary feature of our welcome. To those who have never
crossed a _greve_; who have had no jolting in a Normandy _char-a-banc_;
who, for hours, have not known the mixed pleasures and discomfort of
being a part of sea-rivers; and who have not been met at the threshold
of an Inn on a Rock by the smiling welcome of Madame Poulard--all such
have yet a pleasant page to read in the book of travelled experience.
Meanwhile somewhere, in an inner room, things sweet to the nostrils
were cooking. Maids were tripping up and down stairs with covered
dishes; there was the pleasant clicking in the ear of the lids of
things; dishes or pans or jars were being lifted. And more delicious to
the ear than even the promise to starving mouths of food, and of red
wine to the lip, was the continuing music of madame's voice, as she
stood over us purring with content at seeing her travellers drying and
being thoroughly warmed. "The dinner-bell must soon be rung, dear
ladies; I delayed it as long as I dared--I gauged your progress
across from the terrace--I have kept all my people waiting; for your
first dinner here must be hot! But now it rings! Shall I conduct you to
I have no doubt that, even without this brunette beauty, with her olive
cheek and her comely figure as guides, we should have gone the way she
took us in a sort of daze. One cannot pass under machicolated gateways;
rustle between the walls of fourteenth century fortifications; climb a
stone stairway that begins in a watch-tower and ends in a rampart, with
a great sea view, and with the breadth of all the land shoreward; walk
calmly over the top of a king's gate, with the arms of a bishop and the
shrine of the Virgin beneath one's feet; and then, presently, begin to
climb the side of a rock in which rude stone steps have been cut, till
one lands on a miniature terrace, to find a preposterously
sturdy-looking house affixed to a ridiculous ledge of rock that has the
presumption to give shelter to a hundred or more travellers--ground
enough, also, for rows of plane-trees, for honeysuckles, and rose-vine,
with a full coquettish equipment of little tables and iron chairs--no
such journey as that up a rock was ever taken with entirely sober eyes.
Although her people were waiting below, and the dinner was on its way
to the cloth, Madame Poulard had plenty of time to give to the beauty
about her. How fine was the outlook from the top of the ramparts! What
a fresh sensation, this, of standing on a terrace in mid-air and
looking down on the sea, and across to the level shores! The
rose-vines--we found them sweet--_tiens_--one of the branches had
fallen--she had full time to re-adjust the loosened support. And
"Marianne, give these ladies their hot water, and see to their bags--"
even this order was given with courtesy. It was only when the supple,
agile figure had left us to fly down the steep rock-cut steps; when it
shot over the top of the gateway and slid with the grace of a lizard
into the street far below us, that we were made sensible of there
having been any especial need of madame's being in haste.
That night, some three hours later, a picturesque group was assembled
about this same supple figure. A pretty, and unlooked-for ceremony was
about to take place.
It was the ceremony of the lighting of the lanterns.
In the great kitchen, in the dance of the firelight and the glow of the
lamps, some seven or eight of us were being equipped with Chinese
lanterns. This of itself was an engaging sight. Madame Poulard was
always gay at this performance--for it meant much innocent merriment
among her guests, and with the lighting of the last lantern, her own
day was done. So the brilliant eyes flashed with a fresh fire, and the
olive cheek glowed anew. All the men and women laughed as children
sputter laughter, when they are both pleased and yet a little ashamed
to show their pleasure. It was so very ridiculous, this journey up a
rock with a Chinese lantern! But just because it was ridiculous, it was
also delightful. One--two--three--seven--eight--they were all lit. The
last male guest had touched his cap to madame, exchanging the "_bonne
nuit_" a man only gives to a pretty woman, and that which a woman
returns who feels that her beauty has received its just meed of homage;
madame's figure stood, still smiling, a radiant benedictory presence,
in the doorway, with the great glow of the firelight behind her; the
last laugh echoed down the street--and behold, darkness was upon us!
The street was as black as a cavern. The strip of sky and the stars
above seemed almost day, by contrast. The great arch of the Porte du
Roi engulphed us, and then, slowly groping our way, we toiled up the
steps to the open ramparts. Here the keen night air swept rudely
through our cloaks and garments; the sea tossed beneath the bastions
like some restless tethered creature, that showed now a gray and now a
purple coat, and the stars were gold balls that might drop at any
instant, so near they were. The men shivered and buttoned their coats,
and the women laughed, a trifle shrilly, as they grasped the floating
burnous closer about their faces and shoulders.
And the lanterns' beams danced a strange dance on the stone flagging.
Once more we were lost in darkness. We were passing through the old
guard-house. And then slowly, more slowly than ever, the lanterns were
climbing the steps cut in the rock. Hands groped in the blackness to
catch hold of the iron railing; the laughter had turned into little
shouts and gasps for help. And then one of the lanterns played a
treacherous trick; it showed the backs of two figures groping upward
together--about one of the girlish figures a man's arm was flung.
As suddenly the noise of the cries was stilled.
The lanterns played their fitful light on still other objects. They
illumined now a vivid yellow shrub; they danced upon a roof-top; they
flooded, with a sudden circlet of brilliance, the awful depths below of
the swirling waters and of rocks that were black as a bottomless pit.
Then the terrace was reached. And the lanterns danced a last gay little
dance among the roses and the vines before, Pouffe! Pouffe! and behold!
they were all blown out.
Thus it was we went to bed on the Mont.
AN HISTORICAL OMELETTE--THE PILGRIMS AND THE SHRINE.
To awake on a hill-top at sea. This was what morning brought.
Crowd this hill with houses plastered to the sides of rocks, with great
walls girdling it, with tiny gardens lodged in crevices, and with a
forest tumbling seaward. Let this hill yield you a town in which to
walk, with a street of many-storied houses; with other promenades along
ramparts as broad as church aisles; with dungeons, cloisters, halls,
guard-rooms, abbatial gateways, and a cathedral whose flying buttresses
seemed to spring from mid-air and to end in a cloud--such was the world
into which we awoke on the heights of Mont St. Michel.
The verdict of the shore on the hill had been a just one; this world on
a rock was a world apart. This hill in the sea had a detached air--as
if, though French, at heart a true Gaul, it had had from the beginning
of things a life of adventure peculiar to itself. The shore, at best,
had been only a foster-mother; the hill was the true child of the sea.
Since its birth it has had a more or less enforced separateness, in
experience, from the country to which it belonged. Whether temple or
fortress, whether forest-clad in virginal fierceness of aspect, or
subdued into beauty by the touch of man's chisel, its destiny has
ever been the same--to suffice unto itself--to be, in a word, a world
The Mont proved by its appearance its history in adventure; it had the
grim, grave, battered look that comes only to features, whether of rock
or of more plastic human mould--that have been carved by the rough
handling of experience.
It is the common habit of hills and mountains, as we all know, to turn
disdainful as they grow skyward; they only too eagerly drop, one by
one, the things by which man has marked the earth for his own. To stand
on a mountain top and to go down to your grave are alike, at least in
this--that you have left everything, except yourself, behind you. But
it is both the charm and the triumph of Mont St. Michel, that it
carries so much of man's handiwork up into the blue fields of air; this
achievement alone would mark it as unique among hills. It appears as if
for once man and nature had agreed to work in concert to produce a
masterpiece in stone. The hill and the architectural beauties it
carries aloft, are like a taunt flung out to sea and to the upper
heights of air; for centuries they appear to have been crying aloud,
"See what we can do, against your tempests and your futile tides--when
On that particular morning, the taunt seemed more like an
epithalamium--such marriage-lines did sea and sky appear to be reading
over the glistening face of the rock. June had pitched its tent of blue
across the seas; all the world was blue, except where the sun smote it
into gold. To eyes in love with beauty, what a world at one's feet!
Beneath that azure roof, toward the west, was the world of water,
curling, dimpling, like some human thing charged with the conscious
joy of dancing in the sun. Shoreward, the more stable earth was in the
Moslem's ideal posture--that of perpetual prostration. The Brittany
coast was a long, flat, green band; the rocks of Cancale were brown,
but scarcely higher in point of elevation than the sand-hills; the
Normandy forests and orchards were rippling lines that focussed into
the spiral of the Avranches cathedral spires: floating between the two
blues, hung the aerial shapes of the Chaunsey and the Channel Islands;
and nearer, along the coast-line, were the fringing edges of the shore,
broken with shoals and shallows--earth's fingers, as it were, touching
the sea--playing, as Coleridge's Abyssinian maid fingered the dulcimer,
that music that haunts the poet's ear.
We were seated at the little iron tables, on the terrace. We were
sipping our morning coffee, beneath the plane-trees. The terrace, a
foot beyond our coffee-cups, instantly began its true career as a
precipice. We, ourselves, seemed to have begun as suddenly our own
flight heavenward--on such astonishing terms of intimacy were we with
the sky. The clapping close to our ears of large-winged birds; the
swirling of the circling sea-gulls; the amazing nearness of the cloud
drapery--all this gave us the sense of being in a new world, and of its
being a strangely pleasant one.
Suddenly a cock's crow, shrill and clear, made us start from the
luxurious languor of our contentment; for we had scarcely looked to
find poultry on this Hill of Surprises. Turning in the direction of the
homely, familiar note, we beheld a garden. In this garden walked the
cock--a two-legged gentleman of gorgeous plumage. If abroad for purely
constitutional purposes, the crowing chanticleer must be forced to pass
the same objects many times in review. Of all infinitesimal,
microscopic gardens, this one, surely, was a model in minuteness.
Yet it was an entirely self-respecting little garden. It was not much
larger than a generous-sized pocket handkerchief; yet how much
talent--for growing--may be hidden in a yard of soil--if the soil have
the right virtue in it. Here were two rocks forming, with a fringe of
cliff, a triangle; in that tri-cornered bit of earth a lively crop of
growing vegetables was offering flattering signs of promise to the
owner's eye. Where all land runs aslant, as all land does on this
Mont, not an inch was to be wasted; up the rocks peach and pear-split
trees were made to climb--and why should they not, since everything
else--since man himself must climb from the moment he touches the base
of the hill?
Following the cock's call, came the droning sweetness of bees; the rose
and the honeysuckle vines were loading the morning air with the perfume
of their invitations. Then a human voice drowned the bees' whirring,
and a face as fresh and as smiling as the day stood beside us. It was
the voice and the face of Madame Poulard, on the round of her morning
inspections. Our table and the radiant world at her feet were included
in this, her line of observations.
"_Ah, mesdames, comme vous savez bien vous placer!_--how admirably you
understand how to place yourselves! Under such a sky as this--before
such a spectacle--one should be in the front row, as at a theatre!"
And that was the beginning of our deeds finding favor in the eyes of
It was our happy fate to drink many a morning cup of coffee at those
little iron tables; to have many a prolonged chat with the charming
landlady of the famous inn; to become as familiar with the glories and
splendors of the historical hill as with the habits and customs of the
world that came up to view them.
For here our journey was to end.
The comedy of life, as it had played itself out in Normandy inns, was
here, in this Inn on a Rock, to give us a series of farewell
performances. On no other stage, we were agreed, could the versatile
French character have had as admirable and picturesque a setting; and
surely, on no other bit of French soil could such an astonishing and
amazing variety of types be assembled for a final appearance, as came
up, day after day, to make the tour of the Mont.
To the shore, and for the whole of the near-lying Breton and Norman
rustic world, the Mont is still the Hill of Delight. It is their Alp,
their shrine, the tenth wonder of the world, a prison, a palace, and a
temple still. In spite of Parisian changes in religious fashions, the
blouse is still devout; for curiosity is the true religion of the
provincial, and all love of adventure did not die out with the
Therefore it is that rustic France along this coast still makes
pilgrimages to the shrine of the Archangel St. Michael. No marriage is
rightly arranged which does not include a wedding-journey across the
_greve_; no nuptial breakfast is aureoled with the true halo of romance
which is eaten elsewhere than on these heights in mid-air. The young
come to drink deep of wonders; the old, to refresh the depleted
fountains of memory; and the tourist, behold, he is as a plague of
locusts let loose upon the defenceless hill!
After a fortnight's sojourn, Charm and I held many a grave
consultation; close observation of this world that climbed the
heights had bred certain strange misgivings. What was it this world of
sight-seers came up to the Mont for to see? Was it to behold the great
glories thereof, or was it, oh, human eye of man! to look on the face
of a charming woman I It was impossible, after sojourning a certain
time upon the hill, not to concede that there were two equally strong
centres of attractions, that drew the world hither-ward. One remained,
indeed, gravely suspended between the doubt and the fear, as to which
of these potential units had the greater pull, in point of actual
attraction. The impartial historian, given to a just weighing of
evidence, would have been startled to find how invariably the scales
tipped; how lightly an historical Mont, born of a miracle, crowned by
the noblest buildings, a pious Mecca for saints and kings innumerable,
shot up like feathers in lightness when over-weighted by the modern
realities of a perfectly appointed inn, the cooking and eating of an
omelette of omelettes, and the all-conquering charms of Madame
Poulard. The fog of doubt thickened as, day after day, the same scenes
were enacted; when one beheld all sorts and conditions of men similarly
affected; when, again and again, the potentiality in the human magnet
was proved true. Doubt turned to conviction, at the last, that the holy
shrine of St. Michael had, in truth, been, violated; that the Mont had
been desecrated; that the latter exists now solely as a setting for a
pearl of an inn; and that within the shrine--it is Madame Poulard
herself who fills the niche!
The pilgrims come from darkest Africa and the sunlit Yosemite, but they
remain to pray at the Inn of the Omelette. Yonder, on the _greves,_ as
we ourselves had proved, one crosses the far seas and one is wet to the
skin, only to hear the praises sung of madame's skill in the handling
of eggs in a pan; it is for this the lean guide strides before the
pilgrim tourist, and that he dippeth his trident in the waters. At the
great gates of the fortifications the pilgrim descends, and behold, a
howling chorus of serving-people take up the chant of: "_Chez Madame
Poulard, a gauche, a la renommee de l'omelette!_" The inner walls of
the town lend themselves to their last and best estate, that of
proclaiming the glory of "_L'Omelette_." Placards, rich in indicative
illustrations of hands all forefingers, point, with a directness never
vouchsafed the sinner eager to find the way to right and duty, to the
inn of "_L'Incomparable, la Fameuse Omelette!_" The pilgrims meekly
descend at that shrine. They bow low to the worker of the modern
miracle; they pass with eager, trembling foot, into the inner
sanctorum, to the kitchen, where the presiding deity receives them with
the grace of a queen and the simplicity of a saint.
Life on the Mont, as we soon found, resolved itself into this--into so
arranging one's day as to be on hand for the great, the eventful hour.
In point of fact there were two such hours in the Mont St. Michel day.
There was the hour of the cooking of the omelette. There was always the
other really more tragic hour, of the coming across the dike, of the
huge lumbering omnibuses. For you see, that although one may be
beautiful enough to compete successfully against dead-and-gone saints,
against worn out miracles, and wonders in stone, human nature, when
it is alive, is human nature still. It is the curse of success, the
world over, to arouse jealousy; and we all have lived long enough to
know that jealousy's evil-browed offspring are named Hate and
Competition. Up yonder, beyond the Porte du Roi, rivalry has set up a
counter-shrine, with a competing saint, with all the hateful
accessories of a pretty face, a younger figure, and a graceful
if less skilled aptitude in the making of omelettes in public.
The hour of the coming in of the coaches, was, therefore, a tragic
On the arrival of the coaches Madame was at her post long before the
pilgrims came up to her door. Being entirely without personal vanity--
since she felt her beauty, her cleverness, her grace, and her charm to
be only a part of the capital of the inn trade--a higher order of the
stock in trade, as it were--she made it a point to look handsomer on
the arrival of coaches than at any other time. Her cheeks were certain
to be rosier; her bird's head was always carried a trifle more
takingly, perched coquettishly sideways, that the caressing smile of
welcome might be the more personal; and as the woman of business,
lining the saint, so to speak, was also present, into the deep pockets
of the blue-checked apron, the calculating fingers were thrust, that
the quick counting of the incoming guests might not be made too obvious
an action. After such a pose, to see a pilgrim escape! To see him pass
by, unmoved by that smile, turning his feelingless back on the true
shrine! It was enough to melt the stoutest heart. Madame's welcome of
the captured, after such an affront, was set in the minor key; and her
smile was the smile of a suffering angel.
"_Cours, mon enfant_, run, see if he descends or if he pushes on; tell
him _I_ am Madame Poulard!" This, a low command murmured between a
hundred orders, still in the minor key, would be purred to Clementine,
a peasant in a cap, exceeding fleet of foot, and skilled in the capture
of wandering sheep.
And Clementine would follow that stray pilgrim: she would attack him in
the open street; would even climb after him, if need be, up the steep
rock steps, till, proved to be following strange gods, he would be
brought triumphantly back to the kitchen-shrine, by Clementine,
puffing, but exultant.
"Ah, monsieur, how could you pass us by?" madame's soft voice would
murmur reproachfully in the pilgrim's ear. And the pilgrim, abashed,
ashamed, would quickly make answer, if he were born of the right
parents: "_Chere_ madame, how was I to believe my eyes? It is ten years
since I was here, and you are younger, more beautiful than ever! I was
going in search of your mother!" at which needless truism all the
kitchen would laugh. Madame Poulard herself would find time for one of
her choicest smiles, although this was the great moment of the working
of the miracle. She was beginning to cook the omelette.
The head-cook was beating the eggs in a great yellow bowl. Madame had
already taken her stand at the yawning Louis XV. fireplace; she was
beginning gently to balance the huge _casserole_ over the glowing logs.
And all the pilgrims were standing about, watching the process. Now,
the group circling about the great fireplace was scarcely ever the
same; the pilgrims presented a different face and garb day after
day--but in point of hunger they were as one man; they were each and
all as unvaryingly hungry as only tourists could be, who, clamoring for
food, have the smell of it in their nostrils, with the added ache of
emptiness gnawing within. But besides hunger, each one of the pilgrims
had brought with him a pair of eyes; and what eyes of man can be pure
savage before the spectacle of a pretty woman cooking, _for him_,
before an open fire? Therefore it was that still another miracle was
wrought, that of turning a famished mob into a buzzing swarm of
"_Mais si, monsieur_, in this pan I can cook an omelette large enough
for you all; you will see. Ah, madame, you are off already? Celestine!
Madame's bill, in the desk yonder. And you, monsieur, you too leave us?
_Deux cognacs?_ Victor--_deux cognacs et une demi-tasse pour monsieur!_"
These and a hundred other answers and questions and orders, were
uttered in a fluted voice or in a tone of sharp command, by the
miracle-worker, as the pan was kept gently turning, and the eggs were
poured in at just the right moment--not one of the pretty poses of head
and wrist being forgotten. Madame Poulard, like all clever women who
are also pretty, had two voices: one was dedicated solely to the
working of her charms; this one was soft, melodious, caressing,
the voice of dove when cooing; the other, used for strictly business
purposes, was set in the quick, metallic _staccato_ tones proper for
The dove's voice was trolling its sweetness, as she went on--
"Eggs, monsieur? How many I use? Ah, it is in the season that counting
the dozens becomes difficult--seventy dozen I used one day last year!"
"Seventy dozen!" the pilgrim-chorus ejaculated, their eyes growing the
wider as their lips moistened. For behold, the eggs were now cooked to
a turn; the long-handled pan was being lifted with the effortless skill
of long practice, the omelette was rolled out at just the right instant
of consistency, and was being as quickly turned into its great flat
There was a scurrying and scampering up the wide steps to the dining
room, and a hasty settling into the long rows of chairs. Presently
madame herself would appear, bearing the huge dish. And the
omelette--the omelette, unlike the pilgrims, would be found to be
always the same--melting, juicy, golden, luscious, and above all _hot!_
The noon-day table d'hote was always a sight to see. Many of the
pilgrim-tourists came up to the Mont merely to pass the day, or to stop
the night; the midday meal was therefore certain to be the liveliest of
all the repasts.
The cloth was spread in a high, white, sunlit room. It was a trifle
bare, this room, in spite of the walls being covered with pictures, the
windows with pretty draperies, and the spotless linen that covered the
long table. But all temples, however richly adorned, have a more or
less unfurnished aspect; and this room served not only as the
dining-table, but also as a foreshadowing of the apotheosis of Madame
Poulard. Here were grouped together all the trophies and tributes of a
grateful world; there were portraits of her charming brunette face
signed by famous admirers; there were sonnets to her culinary skill and
her charms as hostess, framed; these alternated with gifts of horned
beasts that had been slain in her honor, and of stuffed birds who, in
life, had beguiled the long winters for her with their songs. About the
wide table, the snow of the linen reflected always the same picture;
there were rows of little palms in flower-pots, interspersed with fruit
dishes, with the butter pats, the almonds, and raisins, in their flat
The rows of faces above the cloth were more varied. The four corners of
the earth were sometimes to be seen gathered together about the
breakfast-table. Frenchmen of the Midi, with the skin of Spaniards and
the buzz of Tartarin's _ze ze_ in their speech; priests, lean and fat;
Germans who came to see a French stronghold as defenceless as a woman's
palm; the Italian, a rarer type, whose shoes, sufficiently pointed to
prick, and whose choice for decollete collars betrayed his nationality
before his lisping French accent could place him indisputably beyond
the Alps; herds of English--of all types--from the aristocrat, whose
open-air life had colored his face with the hues of a butcher, to the
pale, ascetic clerk, off on a two weeks' holiday, whose bending at his
desk had given him the stoop of a scholar; with all these were mixed
hordes of French provincials, chiefly of the _bourgeois type,_ who
singly, or in family parties, or in the nuptial train of sons or
daughters, came up to the shrine of St. Michel.
To listen to the chatter of these tourists was to learn the last word
of the world's news. As in the days before men spoke to each other
across continents, and the medium of cold type had made the event of
to-day the history of to-morrow, so these pilgrims talked through the
one medium that alone can give a fact the real essence of
freshness--the ever young, the perdurably charming human voice. It was
as good as sitting out a play to watch the ever-recurring
characteristics, which made certain national traits as marked as the
noses on the faces of the tourists. The question, for example, on which
side the Channel a pilgrim was born, was settled five seconds after he
was seated at table. The way in which the butter was passed was one
test; the manner of the eating of the famous omelette was another. If
the tourist were a Frenchman, the neat glass butter-dish was turned
into a visiting-card--a letter of introduction, a pontoon-bridge, in a
word, hastily improvised to throw across the stream of conversation.
"_Madame_" (this to the lady at the tourist's left), "_me permet-elle de
lui offrir le beurre?_" Whereat madame bowed, smiled, accepted the
golden balls as if it were a bouquet, returning the gift, a few seconds
later, by the proffer of the gravy dish. Between the little ceremony of
the two bows and the smiling _mercis_, a tentative outbreak of speech
ensued, which at the end of a half-hour, had spread from _bourgeois_ to
countess, from cure to Parisian _boulevardier_, till the entire side of
the table was in a buzz of talk. These genial people of a genial land
finding themselves all in search of the same adventure, on top of a
hill, away from the petty world of conventionality, remembered that
speech was given to man to communicate with his fellows. And though
neighbors for a brief hour, how charming such an hour can be made when
into it are crowded the effervescence of personal experience, the witty
exchange of comment and observation, and the agreeable conflict of
thought and opinion!
On the opposite side of the table, what a contrast! There the English
were seated. There was the silence of the grave. All the rigid figures
sat as upright as posts. In front of these severe countenances, the
butter-plates remained as fixtures; the passing of them to a neighbor
would be a frightful breach of good form--besides being dangerous. Such
practices, in public places, had been known to lead to things--to
unspeakable things--to knowing the wrong people, to walks afterward
with cads one couldn't shake off, even to marriages with the
impossible! Therefore it was that the butter remained a fixture. Even
between those who formed the same tourist-party, there was rarely such
an act of self-forgetfulness committed as an indulgence in talk--in
public. The eye is the only active organ the Englishman carries abroad
with him; his talking is done by staring. What fierce scowls, what dark
looks of disapproval, contempt, and dislike were levelled at the
chattering Frenchmen opposite.
[Illustration: MONT SAINT MICHEL SNAIL-GATHERERS]
Across the table, the national hate perpetuated itself. It appears to
be a test of patriotism, this hatred between Frenchmen and Englishmen.
That strip of linen might easily have been the Channel itself; it could
scarcely more effectually have separated the two nations. A whole
comedy of bitterness, a drama of rivalry, and a five-act tragedy of
scorn were daily played between the Briton who sat facing the south,
and the Frenchman who faced north. Both, as they eyed their neighbor
over the foam of their napkins, had the Island in their eye!--the
Englishman to flaunt its might and glory in the teeth of the hated
Gaul, and the Frenchman to return his contempt for a nation of moist
Meanwhile, the omelette was going its rounds. It was being passed at
that moment to Monsieur le Cure. He had been watching its progress with
glistening eye and moistening lips. Madame Poulard, as she slipped the
melting morsel beneath his elbow, had suddenly assumed the role of the
penitent. Her tone was a reminder of the confessional, as of one who
passed her masterpiece apologetically. She, forsooth, a sinner, to have
the honor of ministering to the carnal needs of a son of the Church!
The son of the Church took two heaping spoonfuls. His eye gave her,
with his smile, the benediction of his gratitude, even before he had
tasted of the luscious compound.
"_Ah, chere madame! il n'y a que vous_--it is only you who can make the
ideal omelette! I have tried, but Suzette has no art in her fingers;
your receipt doesn't work away from the Mont!" And the good man sighed
as he chuckled forth his praises.
He had come up to the hill in company with the two excellent ladies
beside him, of his flock, to make a little visit to his brethren
yonder, to the priests who were still here, wrecks of the once former
flourishing monastery. He had come to see them, and also to gaze on La
Merveille. It was a good five years since he had looked upon its
dungeons and its lace-work. But after all, in his secret soul of souls,
he had longed to eat of the omelette. _Dieu!_ how often during those
slow, quiet years in the little hamlet yonder on the plain, had its
sweetness and lightness mocked his tongue with illusive tasting! Little
wonder, therefore, that the good cure's praises were sweet in madame's
ear, for they had the ring of truth--and of envy! And madame herself
was only mortal, for what woman lives but feels herself uplifted by the
sense of having found favor in the eyes of her priest?
The omelette next came to a halt between the two ladies of the cure's
flock. These were two _bourgeoises_ with the deprecating, mistrustful
air peculiar to commonplace the world over. The walk up the steep
stairs was still quickening their breath their compressed bosoms were
straining the hooks of their holiday woollen bodices--cut when they
were of slenderer build. Their bonnets proclaimed the antique fashions
of a past decade; but the edge of their tongues had the keenness that
comes with daily practice--than which none has been found surer than
adoration of one's pastor, and the invigorating gossip of small towns.
These ladies eyed the omelette with a chilled glance. Naturally, they
could not see as much to admire in Madame Poulard or in her dish as did
their cure. There was nothing so wonderful after all in the turning of
eggs over a hot fire. The omelette!--after all, an omelette is an
omelette! Some are better--some are worse; one has one's luck in
cooking as in anything else. They had come up to the Mont with their
good cure to see its wonders and for a day's outing; admiration of
other women had not been anticipated as a part of the programme.
_Tiens_--who was he talking to now? To that tall blonde--a foreigner, a
young girl--_tiens_--who knows?--possibly an American--those Americans
are terrible, they say--bold, immodest, irreverent. And the two ladies'
necks were screwed about their over-tight collars, to give Charm the
verdict of their disapproval.
"Monsieur le Cure, they are passing you the fish!" cried the stouter,
more aggressive parishioner, who boasted a truculent mustache.
"Monsieur le Cure, the roast is at your elbow!" interpolated the
second, with the more timid voice of a second in action; this protector
of the good cure had no mustache, but her face was mercifully protected
by nature from a too-disturbing combination of attractions, by being
plentifully punctuated with moles from which sprouted little tufts of
hair. The rain of these ladies' interruption was incessant; but the
cure was a man of firm mind; their efforts to recapture his attention
were futile. For the music of Charm's foreign voice was in his ear.
Worship of the cloth is not a national, it is a more or less universal
cult, I take it. It is in the blood of certain women. Opposite the two
fussy, jealous _bourgeoises_, were others as importunate and
aggressive. They were of fair, lean, lank English build, with the
shifting eyes and the persistent courage which come to certain maidens
in whose lives there is but one fixed and certain fact--that of having
missed the matrimonial market. The shrine of their devotions, and the
present citadel of their attack, was seated between them--he also being
lean, pale, high-arched of brow, high anglican by choice, and
noticeably weak of chin, in whose sable garments there was framed the
classical clerical tie.
To this curate Madame was now passing her dish. She still wore her fine
sweet smile, but there was always a discriminating reserve in its edge
when she touched the English elbow. The curate took his spoonful with
the indifference of a man who had never known the religion of good
eating. He put up his one eye-glass; it swept Madame's bending face,
its smile, and the yellow glory floating beneath both. "Ah-h--ya-as--
an omelette!" The glass was dropped; he took a meagre spoonful which he
cut, presently, with his knife. He turned then to his neighbors--to
both his neighbors! They had been talking of the parish church on
"Ah-h-h, ya-as--lovely porch--isn't it?"
"Oh, lovely--lovely!" chorussed the two maidens, with assenting fervor.
"_Were_ you there this morning?" and they lifted eyes swimming with the
rapture of their admiration.
"Only fancy--our missing you! We were _both_ there!"
"Dear me! Really, were you?"
"_Could_ you go this afternoon? I do want so to hear your criticism of
my drawing--I'm working on the arch now."
"So sorry--can't--possibly. I promised what's his name to go over to
Tombelaine, don't you know!"
"Oh-h! We do so want to go to Tombelaine!"
"Ah-h--do you, really? One ought to start a little before the tide
drops--they tell me!" and the clerical eye, through its correctly
adjusted glass, looked into those four pleading eyes with no hint of
softening. The dish that was the masterpiece of the house, meanwhile,
had been despatched as if it were so much leather.
The omelette fared no better with the brides, as a rule, than with the
English curates. Such a variety of brides as came up to the Mont! You
could have your choice, at the midday meal, of almost any nationality,
age, or color. The attempt among these bridal couples to maintain the
distant air of a finished indifference only made their secret the more
open. The British phlegm, on such a journey, did not always serve as a
convenient mask; the flattering, timid glance, the ripple of the tender
whispers, and the furtive touching of fingers beneath the table, made
even these English couples a part of the great human marrying family;
their superiority to their fellows would return, doubtless, when the
honey had dried out of their moon. The best of our adventures into this
tender country were with the French bridal tourists; they were certain
to be delightfully human. As we had had occasion to remark before, they
were off, like ourselves, on a little voyage of discovery; they had
come to make acquaintance with the being to whom they were mated for
life. Various degrees of progress could be read in the air and manner
of the hearty young _bourgeoises_ and their paler or even ruddier
partners, as they crunched their bread or sipped their thin wine. Some
had only entered as yet upon the path of inquiry; others had already
passed the mile-stone of criticism; and still others had left the
earth and were floating in full azure of intoxication. Of the many
wedding parties that sat down to breakfast, we soon made the
commonplace discovery that the more plebeian the company, the more
certain-orbed appeared to be the promise of happiness.
Some of the peasant weddings were noisy, boisterous performances;
but how gay were the brides, and how bloated with joy the hardy,
knotty-handied grooms! These peasant wedding guests all bore a striking
family likeness; they might easily all have been brothers and sisters,
whether they had come from the fields near Pontorson, or Cancale, or
Dol, or St. Malo. The older the women, the prettier and the more
gossamer were the caps; but the younger maidens were always delightful
to look upon, such was the ripe vigor of their frames, and the liquid
softness of eyes that, like animals, were used to wide sunlit fields
and to great skies full of light. The bride, in her brand-new stuff
gown, with a bonnet that recalled the bridal wreath only just laid
aside, was also certain to be of a general universal type with the
broad hips, wide waist, muscular limbs, and the melting sweetness of
lips and eyes that only abundant health and a rich animalism of nature
bring to maidenhood.
Madame Poulard's air with this, her world, was as full of tact as with
the tourists. Many of the older women would give her the Norman kiss,
solemnly, as if the salute were a part of the ceremony attendant on the
eating of a wedding breakfast at Mont St. Michel. There would be a
three times' clapping of the wrinkled or the ruddy peasant cheeks
against the sides of Madame Poulard's daintier, more delicately
modelled face. Then all would take their seats noisily at table. It was
Madame Poulard who then would bring us news of the party; at the end of
a fortnight, Charm and I felt ourselves to be in possession of the
hidden and secret reasons for all the marrying that had been done along
the coast, that year. "_Tiens, ce n'est pas gai, la noce!_ I must learn
the reason!" Madame would then flutter over the bridal breakfasters as
a delicate plumaged bird hovers over a mass of stuff out of which it
hopes to make a respectable meal. She presently would return to murmur
in a whisper, "it is a _mariage de raison_. They, the bride and groom,
love elsewhere, but they are marrying to make a good partnership; they
are both hair-dressers at Caen. They have bought a new and fine shop
with their earnings." Or it would be, "Look, madame, at that _jolie
personne_; see how sad she looks. She is in love with her cousin who
sits opposite, but the groom is the old one. He has a large farm and a
hundred cows." To look on such a trio would only be to make the
acquaintance anew of Sidonie and Risler and of Froment Jeune. Such
brides always had the wandering gaze of those in search of fresh
horizons, or of those looking already for the chance of escape. For
such "unhappies," _ces malheureuses_, Madame's manner had an added
softness and tenderness; she passed the frosted bridal cake as if it
were a propitiatory offering to the God of Hymen. However melancholy
the bride, the cake and Madame's caressing smiles wrought ever the same
spell; for an instant, at least, the newly-made wife was in love with
matrimony and with the cake, accepting the latter with the pleased
surprise of one who realizes that, at least, on one's wedding day, one
is a person of importance; that even so far as Mont St. Michel the news
of their marriage had turned the ovens into a baking of wedding-cakes.
This was destined to be the first among the deceptions that greeted
such brides; for there were hundreds of such cakes, alas! kept
constantly on hand. They were the same--a glory of sugar-mouldings and
devices covering a mountain of richness--that were sent up yearly at
Christmas time to certain mansard studios in the Latin quarter, where
the artist recipients, like the brides, eat of the cake as did Adam
when partaking of the apple, believing all the woman told them!
There were other visitors who came up to the Mont, not as welcome as
were these tourist parties.
One morning, as we looked toward Pontorson, a small black cloud
appeared to be advancing across the bay. The day was windy; the sky was
crowded with huge white mountains--round, luminous clouds that moved in
stately sweeps. And the sea was the color one loves to see in an
earnest woman's eye, the dark-blue sapphire that turns to blue-gray.
This was a setting that made that particular cloud, making such slow
progress across from the shore, all the more conspicuous. Gradually, as
the black mass neared the dike, it began to break and separate; and we
saw plainly enough that the scattering particles were human beings.
It was, in point of fact, a band of pilgrims; a peasant pilgrimage was
coming up to the Mont. In wagons, in market carts, in _char-a-bancs_,
in donkey-carts, on the backs of monster Percherons--the pilgrimage
moved in slow processional dignity across the dike. Some of the younger
black gowns and blue blouses attempted to walk across over the sands;
we could see the girls sitting down on the edge of the shore, to take
off their shoes and stockings and to tuck up their thick skirts. When
they finally started they were like unto so many huge cheeses hoisted
on stilts. The bare legs plunged boldly forward, keeping ahead of the
slower-moving peasant-lads; the girls' bravery served them till they
reached the fringe of the incoming tide; not until their knees went
under water did they forego their venture. A higher wave came in,
deluging the ones farthest out; and then ensued a scampering toward the
dike and a climbing up of the stone embankment. The old route across
the sands, that had been the only one known to kings and barons, was
not good enough for a modern Norman peasant. The religion of personal
comfort has spread even as far as the fields.
At the entrance gate a tremendous hubbub and noise announced the
arrival of the pilgrimage. Wagons, carts, horses, and peasants were
crowded together as only such a throng is mixed in pilgrimages, wars,
and fairs. Women were taking down hoods, unharnessing the horses,
fitting slats into outsides of wagons, rolling up blankets, unpacking
from the _char-a-bancs_ cooking utensils, children, grain-bags, long
columns of bread, and hard-boiled eggs. For the women, darting hither
and thither in their blue petticoats, their pink and red kerchiefs, and
the stiff white Norman caps, were doing all the work. The men appeared
to be decorative adjuncts, plying the Norman's gift of tongue across
wagon-wheels and over the back of their vigorous wives and daughters.
For them the battle of the day was over; the hour of relaxation had
come. The bargains they had made along the route were now to be
rehearsed, seasoned with a joke.
"_Allons, toi, on ne fait pas de la monnaie blanche comme ca!_"
"_Je t'ai offert huit sous, tu sais, lapin!_"
"Come, are you never going to have done fooling?" cried a tan-colored,
wide-hipped peasant to her husband, who was lounging against the wagon
pole, sporting a sprig of gentian pinned to his blouse. He was fat and
handsome; and his eye proclaimed, as he was making it do heavy work at
long range at a cluster of girls descending from an antique gig, that
the knowledge of the same was known unto him.
"That's right, growl ahead, thou, _tes beaux jours sont passes_, but
for me _l'amour, l'amour--que c'est gai, que c'est frais!_" he half
sung, half shouted.
The moving mass of color, the Breton caps, and the Norman faces, the
gold crosses that fell from dented bead necklaces, the worn hooped
earrings, the clean bodices and home-spun skirts, streamed out past our
windows as we looked down upon them. How pretty were some of the faces,
of the younger women particularly! and with what gay spirits they were
beginning their day! It had begun the night before, almost; many of the
carts had been driven in from the forests beyond Avranches; some of the
Brittany groups had started the day before. But what can quench the
fountain of French vivacity? To see one's world, surely, there is
nothing in that to tire one; it only excites and exhilarates; and so a
fair or market day, and above all a pilgrimage, are better than balls,
since they come more regularly; they are the peasant's opera, his
Piccadilly and Broadway, club, drawing-room, Exchange, and parade, all
A half-hour after a landing of the pilgrims at the outer gates of the
fortifications, the hill was swarming with them. The single street of
the town was choked with the black gowns and the cobalt-blue blouses.
Before these latter took a turn at their devotions they did homage to
Bacchus. Crowds of peasants were to be seen seated about the long,
narrow inn-tables, lifting huge pewter tankards to bristling beards.
Some of these taverns were the same that had fed and sheltered bands of
pilgrims that are now mere handfuls of dust in country churchyards.
Those sixteenth century pilgrims, how many of them, had found this
same arched doorway of La Licorne as cool as the shade of great trees
after the long hot climb up to the hill! What a pleasant face has the
timbered facade of the Tete d'Or, and the Mouton Blanc, been to the
weary-limbed: and how sweet to the dead lips has been the first taste
of the acid cider!
Other aspects of the hill, on this day of the pilgrimage, made those
older dead-and-gone bands of pilgrims astonishingly real. On the tops
of bastions, in the clefts of the rocks, beneath the glorious walls of
La Merveille, or perilously lodged on the crumbling cornice of a
tourelle, numerous rude altars had been hastily erected. The crude
blues and scarlets of banners were fluttering, like so many pennants,
in the light breeze. Beneath the improvised altar-roofs--strips of gay
cloth stretched across poles stuck into the ground--were groups not
often seen in these less fervent centuries. High up, mounted on the
natural pulpit formed of a bit of rock, with the rude altar before him,
with its bit of scarlet cloth covered with cheap lace, stood or knelt
the priest. Against the wide blue of the open heaven his figure took
on an imposing splendor of mien and an unmodern impressiveness of
action. Beneath him knelt, with bowed heads, the groups of the
peasant-pilgrims; the women, with murmuring lips and clasped hands,
their strong, deeply-seamed faces outlined, with the precision of a
Francesco painting, against the gray background of a giant mass of
wall, or the amazing breadth of a vast sea-view; children, squat and
chubby, with bulging cheeks starting from the close-fitting French
_bonnet_; and the peasant-farmers, mostly of the older varieties, whose
stiffened or rheumatic knees and knotty hands made their kneeling real
acts of devotional zeal. There were a dozen such altars and groups
scattered over the perpendicular slant of the hill. The singing of the
choir-boys, rising like skylark notes into the clear space of heaven,
would be floating from one rocky-nested chapel, while below, in the one
beneath which we, for a moment, were resting, there would be the
groaning murmur of the peasant groups in prayer.
All day little processions were going up and down the steep stone steps
that lead from fortified rock to parish church, and from the town to
the abbatial gateway. The banners and the choir-boys, the priests in
their embroideries and lace, the peasants in cap and blouse, were
incessantly mounting and descending, standing on rock edges, caught for
an instant between a medley of perpendicular roofs, of giant gateways,
and a long perspective of fortified walls, only to be lost in the curve
of a bastion, or a flying buttress, that, in their turn, would be found
melting into a distant sea-view.
All the hours of a pilgrimage, we discovered, were not given to prayer;
nor yet is an incessant bowing at the shrine of St. Michel the sole
other diversion in a true pilgrim's round of pious devotions. Later on
in this eventful day, we stumbled on a somewhat startling variation to
the penitential order of the performances. In a side alley, beneath a
friendly overhanging rock and two protecting roof-eaves, an acrobat was
making her professional toilet. When she emerged to lay a worn strip of
carpet on the rough cobbles of the street, she presented a pathetic
figure in the gold of the afternoon sun. She was old and wrinkled; the
rouge would no longer stick to the sunken cheeks; the wrinkles were
become clefts; the shrunken but still muscular legs were clad in a pair
of tights, a very caricature of the silken webs that must once have
encased the poor old creature's limbs, for these were knitted of the
coarse thread the commonest peasant uses for the rough field stocking.
Over these obviously home-made coverings was a single skirt of azure
tarlatan, plentifully besprinkled with golden stars. The gossamer skirt
and its spangles turned, for their _debut_, a somersault in the air,
and the knitted tights took strange leaps from the bars of a rude
trapeze. The groups of peasants were soon thicker about this spectacle
than they had gathered about the improvised altars. All the men
who had passed the day in the taverns came out at the sound of the
hoarse cracked voice of the aged acrobat. As she hurled her poor old
twisted shape from swinging bar to pole, she cried aloud, "_Ah,
messieurs, essayez ca seulement!_" The men's hands, when she had
landed on her feet after an uncommonly venturous whirl of the blue
skirts in mid-air, came out of their deep pockets; but they seasoned
their applause with coarse jokes which they flung, with a cruel relish,
into the pitifully-aged face. A cracked accordion and a jingling
tambourine were played by two hardened-looking ruffians, seated on
their heels beneath a window--a discordant music that could not drown
the noise of the peasants' derisive laughter. But the latter's pennies
rattled a louder jingle into the ancient acrobat's tin cup than it had
into the priest's green netted contribution box.
"No, madame, as for us, we do not care for pilgrimages," was Madame
Poulard's verdict on such survivals of past religious enthusiasms. And
she seasoned her comments with an enlightening shrug. "We see too well
how they end. The men go home dead drunk, the women are dropping with
fatigue, _et les enfants meme se grisent de cidre!_ No; pilgrimages are
bad for everyone. The priests should not allow them."
This was at the end of the day, after the black and blue swarm had
passed, a weary, uncertain-footed throng, down the long street, to take
its departure along the dike. At the very end of the straggling
procession came the three acrobats; they had begged, or bought, a drive
across the dike from some of the pilgrims. The lady of the knitted
tights, in her conventional skirts and womanly fichu, was scarcely
distinguishable from the peasant women who eyed her askance; though
decently garbed now, they looked at her as if she were some plague or
vice walking in their midst.
The verdict of Madame Poulard seemed to be the verdict of all Mont St.
Michel. The whole town was abroad that evening, on its doorsteps and in
its garden beds, repairing the ravages committed by the band of the
pilgrims. Never had the town, as a town, been so dirty; never had the
street presented so shocking a collection of abominations; never had
flowers and shrubs been so mercilessly robbed and plundered--these were
the comments that flowed as freely as the water that was rained over
the dusty cobbles, thick with refuse of luncheon and the shreds of torn
skirts and of children's socks.
At any hour of the day, of even an ordinary, uneventful day, to take a
walk in the town is to encounter a surprise at every turning. Would you
call it a town--this one straggling street that begins in a King's
gateway and ends--ah, that is the point, just where does it end? I, for
one, was never once quite certain at just what precise point this one
single Mont St. Michel street stopped--lost itself, in a word, and
became something else. That was also true of so many other things on
the hill; all objects had such an astonishing way of suddenly becoming
something else. A house, for example, that you had passed on your
upward walk, had a beguiling air of sincerity. It had its cellar
beneath the street front like any other properly built house; it
continued its growth upward, showing the commonplace features of a
door, of so many windows--queerly spaced, and of an amazing variety of
shapes, but still unmistakably windows. Then, assured of so much
integrity of character, you looked to see the roof covering the house,
and instead-like the eggs in a Chinese juggler's fingers, that are
turned in a jiffy into a growing plant--behold the roof miraculously
transformed into a garden, or lost in a rampart, or, with quite
shameless effrontery, playing deserter, and serving as the basement of
another and still fairer dwelling. That was a sample of the way all
things played you the trick of surprise on this hill. Stairways began
on the cobbles of the streets, only to lose themselves in a side wall;
a turn on the ramparts would land you straight into the privacy of a
St. Michelese interior, with an entire household, perchance, at the
mercy of your eye, taken at the mean disadvantage of morning
dishabille. As for doors that flew open where you looked to find a
bastion; or a school--house that flung all the Michelese _voyous_ over
the tops of the ramparts at play-time; or of fishwives that sprung, as
full-armed in their kit as Minerva from her sire's brows, from the very
forehead of fortified places; or of beds and settees and wardrobes
(surely no Michelese has ever been able, successfully, to maintain in
secret the ghost of a family skeleton!) into which you were innocently
precipitated on your way to discover the minutest of all
cemeteries--these were all commonplace occurrences once your foot was
set on this Hill of Surprises.
There are two roads that lead one to the noble mass of buildings
crowning the hill. One may choose the narrow street with its moss-grown
steps, its curves, and turns; or one may have the broader path along
the ramparts, with its glorious outlook over land and sea. Whichever
approach one chooses, one passes at last beneath the great doors of the
Three times did the vision of St. Michel appear to Saint Aubert, in his
dream, commanding the latter to erect a church on the heights of Mont
St. Michel to his honor. How many a time must the modern pilgrim
traverse the stupendous mass that has grown out of that command before
he is quite certain that the splendor of Mont St. Michel is real, and
not a part of a dream! Whether one enters through the dark magnificence
of the great portals of the Chatelet; whether one mounts the fortified
stairway, passing into the Salle des Gardes, passing onward from
dungeon to fortified bridge, to gain the abbatial residence; whether
one leaves the vaulted splendor of oratories for aerial passage-ways,
only to emerge beneath the majestic roof of the Cathedral--that marvel
of the early Norman, ending in the Gothic choir of the fifteenth
century; or, as one penetrates into the gloom of the mighty dungeons
where heroes and the brothers of kings, and saints and scientists have
died their long death--as one gropes through the black night of the
Crypt, where a faint, mysterious glint of light falls aslant the
mystical face of the Black Virgin; as one climbs to the light beneath
the ogive arches of the Aumonerie, through the wide-lit aisles of the
Salle des Chevaliers, past the slender Gothic columns of the Refectory,
up at last to the crowning glory of all the glories of La Merveille, to
the exquisitely beautiful colonnades of the open Cloister the
impressions and emotions excited by these ecclesiastical and military
masterpieces are ever the same, however many times one may pass them in
review. A charm, indefinable, but replete with subtle attractions,
lurks in every one of these dungeons. The great halls have a power to
make one retraverse their space, I have yet to find under other vaulted
chambers. The grass that is set, like a green jewel, in the arabesques
of the Cloister, is a bit of greensward the feet press with a different
tread to that which skips lightly over other strips of turf. And the
world, that one looks out upon through prison bars, that is so
gloriously arched in the arm of a flying buttress, or that lies prone
at your feet from the dizzy heights of the rock clefts, is not the
world in which you, daily, do your petty stretch of toil, in which you
laugh and ache, sorrow, sigh, and go down to your grave in. The secret
of this deep attraction may lie in the fact of one's being in a world
that is built on a height. Much, doubtless, of the charm lies, also, in
the reminders of all the human life that, since the early dawn of
history, has peopled this hill. One has the sense of living at
tremendously high mental pressure; of impressions, emotions, sensations
crowding upon the mind; of one's whole meagre outfit of memory, of
poetic equipment, and of imaginative furnishing, being unequal to the
demand made by even the most hurried tour of the great buildings, or
the most flitting review of the noble massing of the clouds and the
The very emptiness and desolation of all the buildings on the hill help
to accentuate their splendor. The stage is magnificently set; the
curtain, even, is lifted. One waits for the coming on of kingly shapes,
for the pomp of trumpets, for the pattering of a mighty host. But,
behold, all is still. And one sits and sees only a shadowy company pass
and repass across that glorious _mise-en-scene._ For, in a certain
sense, I know no other mediaeval mass of buildings as peopled as are
these. The dead shapes seem to fill the vast halls. The Salle des
Chevaliers is crowded, daily, with a brilliant gathering of knights,
who sweep the trains of their white damask mantles, edged with ermine,
over the dulled marble of the floor; two by two they enter the hall;
the golden shells on their mantles make the eyes blink, as the groups
gather about the great chimneys, or wander through the column-broken
space. Behind this dazzling _cortege_, up the steep steps of the narrow
street, swarm other groups--the mediaeval pilgrim host that rushes into
the cathedral aisles, and that climbs the ramparts to watch the stately
procession as it makes its way toward the church portals. There are
still other figures that fill every empty niche and deserted
watch-tower. Through the lancet windows of the abbatial gateways the
yeomanry of the vassal villages are peering; it is the weary time of
the Hundred Years' War, and all France is watching, through sentry
windows, for the approach of her dread enemy. On the shifting sands
below, as on brass, how indelibly fixed are the names of the hundred
and twenty-nine knights whose courage drove, step by step, over that
treacherous surface, the English invaders back to their island
strongholds. Will you have a less stormy and belligerent company to
people the hill? In the quieter days of the fourteenth century, on any
bright afternoon, you could have sat beside some friendly artist-monk,
and watched him color and embellish those wondrous missals that made
the manuscripts of the Brothers famous throughout France. Earlier yet,
in those naive centuries, Robert de Torigny, that "bouche des Papes,"
would doubtless have discoursed to you on any subject dear to this
"counsellor of kings"--on books, or architecture, or the science of
fortifications, or on the theology of Lanfranc; from the helmeted
locks of Rollon to the veiled tresses of the lovely Tiphaine Raguenel,
Duguesclin's wife; from the ghastly rat-eaten body of the Dutch
journalist, who offended that tyrant King, Louis XIV., to the
Revolutionary heroes, as pitilessly doomed to an odious death under the
gentle Louis Philippe--there is no shape or figure in French history
which cannot be summoned at will to refill either a dungeon or a palace
chamber at Mont St. Michel.
Even in these, our modern days, one finds strange relics of past
fashions in thought and opinion. The various political, religious, and
ethical forms of belief to be met with in a fortnight's sojourn on the
hill, give one a sense of having passed in review a very complete
gallery of ancient and modern portraits of men's minds. In time one
learns to traverse even a dozen or more centuries with ease. To be in
the dawn of the eleventh century in the morning; at high noon to be in
the flood-tide of the fifteenth; and, as the sun dipped, to hear the
last word of our own dying century--such were the flights across the
abysmal depths of time Charm and I took again and again.
One of our chosen haunts was in a certain watch-tower. From its top
wall, the loveliest prospect of Mont St. Michel was to be enjoyed. Day
after day and sunset after sunset, we sat out the hours there. Again
and again the world, as it passed, came and took its seat beside us.
Pilgrims of the devout and ardent type would stop, perchance, would
proffer a preliminary greeting, would next take their seat along the
parapet, and, quite unconsciously, would end by sitting for their
portrait. One such sitter, I remember, was clad in carmine crepe shawl;
she was bonneted in the shape of a long-ago decade. She had climbed
the hill in the morning before dawn, she said; she had knelt in prayer
as the sun rose. For hers was a pilgrimage made in fulfilment of a vow.
St. Michel had granted her wish, and she in return had brought her
prayers to his shrine.
"Ah, mesdames! how good is God! How greatly He rewards a little self-
sacrifice. Figure to yourselves the Mont in the early mists, with the
sun rising out of the sea and the hills. I was on my knees, up there. I
had eaten nothing since yesterday at noon. I was full of the Holy
Ghost. When the sun broke at last, it was God Himself in all His glory
come down to earth! The whole earth seemed to be listening--_pretait
l'oreille_--and with the great stillness, and the sea, and the light
breaking everywhere, it was as if I were being taken straight up into
Paradise. Saint Michel himself must have been supporting me."
The carmine crepe shawl covered a poet, you see, as well as a devotee.
Up yonder, in the little shops and stalls tucked away within the walls
of the Barbican, a lively traffic, for many a century now, has been
going on in relics and _plombs de pelerinage_. Some of these mediaeval
impressions have been unearthed in strange localities, in the bed of
the Seine, as far away as Paris. Rude and archaic are many of these
early essays in the sculptor's art. But they preserve for us, in quaint
intensity, the fervor of adoration which possessed that earlier, more
devout time and period. On the mind of this nineteenth century pilgrim,
the same lovely old forms of belief and superstition were imprinted as
are still to be seen in some of those winged figures of St. Michel,
with feet securely set on the back of the terrible dragon, staring,
with triumphant gaze, through stony or leaden eyes.
On the evening of the pilgrimage our friend, the Parisian, joined us on
our high perch. The Mont seemed strangely quiet after the noise and
confusion the peasants had brought in their train. The Parisian, like
ourselves, had been glad to escape into the upper heights of the wide
air, after the bustle and hurry of the day at our inn.
"You permit me, mesdames?" He had lighted his after-dinner cigar; he
went on puffing, having gained our consent. He curled a leg comfortably
about the railings of a low bridge connecting a house that sprang out
of a rock, with the rampart. Below, there was a clean drop of a few
hundred feet, more or less. In spite of the glories of a spectacular
sunset, yielding ceaseless changes and transformations of cloud and sea
tones, the words of Madame Poulard alone had power to possess our
companion. She had uttered her protest against the pilgrimage, as she
had swept the Parisian's _pousse-cafe_ from his elbow. He took up the
conversation where it had been dropped.
"It is amusing to hear Madame Poulard talk of the priests stopping the
pilgrimages! The priests? Why, that's all they have left them to live
upon now. These peasants' are the only pockets in which they can fumble
"All the same, one can't help being grateful to those peasants,"
retorted Charm. "They are the only creatures who have made these things
seem to have any meaning. How dead it all seems! The abbey, the
cloisters, the old prisons, the fortifications, it is like wandering
through a splendid tomb!
"Yes, as the cure said yesterday, '_l'ame n'y est plus_,'--since the
priests have been dislodged, it is the house of the dead."
"The priests"--the Parisian snorted at the very sound of the
word--"they have only themselves to blame. They would have been
here still, if they had not so abused their power."
"How did they abuse it?" Charm asked.
"In every possible way. I am, myself, not of the country. But my
brother was stationed here for some years, when the Mont was
garrisoned. The priests were in full possession then, and they
conducted a lively commerce, mademoiselle. The Mont was turned into a
show--to see it or any part of it, everyone had to pay toll. On the
great fete-days, when St. Michel wore his crown, the gold ran like
water into the monks' treasury. It was still then a fashionable
religious fad to have a mass said for one's dead, out here among the
clouds and the sea. Well, try to imagine fifty masses all dumped on the
altar together; that is, one mass would be scrambled through, no names
would be mentioned, no one save _le bon Dieu_ himself knew for whom it
was being said; but fifty or more believed they had bought it, since
they had paid for it. And the priests laughed in their sleeves, and
then sat down, comfortably, to count the gold. Ah, mesdames, those
were, literally, the golden days of the priesthood! What with the
pilgrimages, and the sale of relics, and _les benefices_--together with
the charges for seeing the wonders of the Mont--what a trade they did!
It is only the Jews, who, in their turn, now own us, up in Paris, who
can equal the priests as commercial geniuses!" And our pessimistic
Parisian, during the next half-hour, gave us a prophetic picture of the
approaching ruin of France, brought about by the genius for plunder and
organization that is given to the sons of Moses.
Following the Parisian, a figure, bent and twisted, opened a door in a
side-wall, and took his seat beside us. One became used, in time, to
these sudden appearances; to vanish down a chimney, or to emerge from
the womb of a rock, or to come up from the bowels of what earth there
was to be found--all such exits and entrances became as commonplace as
all the other extraordinary phases of one's life on the hill. This
particular shape had emerged from a hut, carved, literally, out of the
side of the rock; but, for a hut, it was amazingly snug--as we could
see for ourselves; for the venerable shape hospitably opened the low
wooden door, that we might see how much of a home could be made out of
the side of a rock. Only, when one had been used to a guard-room, and
to great and little dungeons, and to a rattling of keys along dark
corridors, a hut, and the blaze of the noon sun, were trying things to