South of Avallon the railroad climbs to the plateau of the Cote d’Or, and, having accomplished the ascent, travels a crazy course to preserve its altitude. On either side a green landscape spreads out to merge with distant fields of blue. Slim paint-brush poplars are on the horizon. Squares of red, clean-cut in the mistless distances, mark the villages where, now and then, ambitious spires make blue pencil-strokes against the sky. Here are farms, once more, in restful relief from the vista of vineyards. Brown-eyed Susans make splashes of yellow on the grass-lands, ready evidence of the logic with which the “Ridge of Gold” was named.
Every field has its pile of fagots in a fence-corner convenient to the road. Each farm is laid out with square-topped furrows that blend in the distance to give this ridge a characteristic appearance. Wild raspberries and black-berries cover the hedges.
Away to the south and west rise the peaks of the Morvan, mounting higher and ever higher as the train at length steps off the plateau and descends in a crack-the-whip fashion toward Autun.
Autun the medieval city lies in the encircling embrace of Autun the Roman. The moss-grown Augustodunum that was the metropolis of the central watershed at the time that the barbarian tribes rolled out of the east has come upon evil days. Fire, weather, time, and civic apathyelements which increased in effectiveness as the population dwindledhave destroyed most of the monuments of the Roman conquerors and have swept aside innumerable relics of the age when the knights of the cross rode out through the Porte d’Arroux to fight the paynim. The present city is much smaller than the one which the legionaries of Augustus built as the successor to Bibracte. If ever it over-flowed its walls, such a movement was checked long ago, and now it nestles comfortably inside the Roman cincture.
Little old Augustodunum, raided in turn by the Huns, the Burgundians, the sons of Clovis, the Saracens, the Hungarians, the factions of the religious wars, the revolutionists, and the Prussians, shrank steadily and ceased to be “the sister and equal of Rome” in commercial importance while more fortunate towns carried off her art treasures. And yet the result was not entirely evil. While the engineers and soldiers and sculptors and patrician benefactors of the ancient empire knew nothing about advertising, they were writing on the walls of their civic creation the publicity copy that would one day insure the importance of Autun for ever. The little city by the Arroux, quietly manufacturing its cloth and distributing its wines, might not attract a second thought in Paris save at the time that the tax lists are being compiled. But Augustodunum weeping amid its ruins, like a Marius before Carthage, is known to every one who can read the history of France in its relics.
There are streets in Autun where the stone pavements laid by the engineers of the Roman army, unchanged, virtu-ally unrepaired for nineteen hundred years, are still carrying traffic. It would be unbelievable were not the similarity in masonry between this surfacing and the structure of the outer enceinte so obvious.
One does not know where to begin to explore such a town. First impressions are everything, and those who wander through squalid, crooked little streets without beauty or legendary significance might well be depressed at the memory of the factory town that has grown like starved lichen over the ruins of Augustodunum.
In my own case such a mishap was prevented by Monsieur Jacques Auguier, an engineer of the French army, who found me a ready listener on an evening when time was hanging heavily upon his hands.
It was a moonless night, dark as a night can be only in the mountainous districts of France, and the voiture had jogged through black tunnels on the way from the railroad station to the hotel.
Monsieur the Lieutenant was sitting in the hotel cafe sipping hot rum and surveying the groups of hilarious townsfolk with an air of bored unconcern. Chance and a corpulent waitress brought me to his table. Instantly he became affable.
Monsieur was a stranger? Surely one would not be a stranger long in Autun.
He rattled on while I was consuming my omelet, discoursed with new enthusiasm concerning the army and the brotherhood of arms, and then embarked abruptly upon an outline of the history of Autun, leaping centuries at a time to a description of its present wonders. . . . Did monsieur contemplate a visit to the Roman ruins? . . . Monsieur did. . . . Did monsieur plan to hire a regular guide or did he purpose to do his own exploring? . . . Decidedly monsieur favored the latter plan. . . . Would monsieur object to his company on this trip? . . . Monsieur suddenly ceased eating to welcome him to the quest.
The exploration of Autun commenced immediately. Darkness meant nothing to this engineer. He knew the town as well as did the Roman city-builders who laid it out.
“Monsieur may get the atmosphere of the city better on a dark night than in the daytime,” he explained, as we stepped out of the cafe. “In sunlight the modern is too garishly evident. It distracts the attention. At night, when one sees the silhouette of an arch across the end of a street or the tall shadow of a pillar against the sky, one feels that Rome is not so far gone.”
He led on through a series of cobbled windings that seemed to have no particular objective. Presently I sensed, rather than saw, that the close-clustered buildings of latter-day Autun had been left behind. We walked in a white road that one really could see if he chose to strain his eyes to look for it. Then a dim moon emerged from the Morvan, and the scene became as luminous as a stage-setting under a shaded spot-light.
The lieutenant waved an arm toward a depression at the left of the road.
“The arena,” he announced. “It is almost down level with the surface of the earth from which the Romans raised it. But when the moonlight lifts up the bit of wall that you see to the right and the broken arch there in the fore-ground, it is not so difficult to imagine what this circus looked like. . . . I do not like to think of visitors coming here by day. . . . Then they see only a ruin.”
It was not difficult to appreciate the logic of his argument. In the moonlight the dip of the hills, broken here and there by hardier portions of the Roman masonry, be-came once more a vast walled bowl. Two or three parallel strips of stone suggested the rows of seats upon which Augustodunum had sat in festive attire to watch the gladiators or the bull-fighters who succeeded them. One arch was strangely duplicated in the impenetrable shadows of unseen shrubbery. One wall with the aid of moonlight and imagination rose up to majestic heights.
“It is the same with the ancient gateways,” observed the lieutenant as he drew me away from the non-existent spectacle that he had conjured up out of the night for me. “Subdued light is the greatest architectural engineer in the world.”
He was right. We walked back to a town that was no longer a series of black tunnels but a haunt of long dead legionaries. The lieutenant was no longer a French officer but a centurion. I started when a streak of moonlight disclosed the horizon-blue of his uniform.
Our next stop was before the Porte d’Arroux, two great white arches surmounted by an arcade of smaller arches. The sagging roofs of the modern houses beyond the gate were mercifully lost in the shadow, and if only the existing seven of the original ten small arches of the arcade were revealed by the moonlight, the break in the grand old monument was not noticeable.
A similar phenomenon some minutes later restored the Porte St. Andrethe ancient Porta Ligonensisdetached one of its flanking towers from the old Church of St. Andre, and brought out the detail of its Ionic architecture as freshly as if the man who constructed it had only yesterday laid down his magic chisel.
On the following morning I saw a new Autunonce more under the engineer’s guidancean Autun shorn of its white magic, a haphazard grouping of ancient and modern structures that might have appeared hopeless were it not that the impressions of the night were first impressions and therefore ineradicable. By daylight the Temple of Janus, a bulking ruin in the valley of the Arroux, be-comes a towering cube that resembles nothing so much as a pile of brick near an American kiln. Archaeologists con-tend that it never was a temple of Janus and that its title is a corruption of a Gaulish root. One might agree with them by daylight, but the memory of that awesome shadow against the sky at night brings with it visions of strange vestals tending sacred fires where now a white cow munches the ferns that spring from its crevices.
Information of the sort that one acquires by daylight identifies the Romanesque-Gothic cathedral as a former chapel attached to the castle of the dukes of Burgundy, founded in 1060 and consecrated by Innocent II in 1 132. One learns that the spire added to it in the fifteenth century is a hybrid, although one of the most graceful towers of its sort in the world. Despite which, French and German architects generally have agreed in calling this the “foremost among Burgundian churches.”
History has a habit of leaping out at one from queer corners in Autun. The Church of St. Pantaleon was once a part of the Abbaye de St. Martin, founded in 602 by Queen Brunehaut on the spot where the bishop of Tours had cut down a beech-tree that served as an object of druidic ceremonial. The unfortunate queen was buried in this abbey, which was destroyed in 1793. Brunehaut’s roads, Brunehaut’s towers, Brunehaut’s causeways, are still to be found in the vicinity of Autun, revivifying a period which to the modern seems as unbelievable as it is distant. The sarcophagus of Brunehaut is to be seen in the Musee Lapidaire.
Relics of the saint behind the main altar in the cathedral that bears his name link this portion of Burgundy to Provence as Provence is linked with Judea through the miraculous advent of the resurrected Lazarus. . . .
On our return to the hotel my engineer gazed wrathfully at an advertising calendar that decorated the wall of the cafe.
“An outrage against the spirit of Autun, monsieur,” he said. “Autun is superior to calendars.”
And I quite agreed with him.