Across the ridge eastward from Auxerre one finds the district which produces the best of the Burgundian white wines. Chablis, a center once better known for its standing on American wine-lists than for its position on the map, sits amid its acres of vines and stones and sticks, about twenty miles over the hills. Tonnerre, another town of vinous memory, keeps watch over the valley of the Armancon on the eastern edge of the rocky divide.
Tonnerre’s history began with an enchanted spring that enticed the Roman colonists northward out of their pleasure-cities in Provence. Its reputation as a town of good luck had much to do with its subsequent story.
Gallo-Roman Tonnerre became wealthy. In 451 Attila and his Huns stopped long enough to sack it. A hundred years later it was fortified and made one of the strong-holds of central Gaul. It held out as a Frankish position against the Burgundians after the invasions. In 954 it was given by Hugh the Great, Duke of France, to Miles, one of his officers; in 1774 it was made the capital of a duchy, and fulfilled a royal destiny until the revolution.
But, for all its adventurous history, Tonnerre presents little that might attract an investigative soul from the better cuisine of less modern portions of Burgundy. Its sacred spring is still therethe Fosse Dionnewhich some-times flows a torrent and sometimes trickles barely enough to moisten the rocks upon which the hopeful Romans once pressed feverish lips. There is a hospital in the townan institution dating from 1293, when Marguerite of Burgundy, sister-in-law of St. Louis, gave it a charter. The tomb of Marguerite and the church of Notre Dame are listed among the national monuments of France.
The district preserves one relic of the pre-Merovingian period quite apart from a few Romanesque buildings and sundry exhibits of ancient armor and more ancient kitchen-pots. One valley immediately south of Tonnerre is inhabited by a people who seem to be a race entirely different from those that have leavened the rest of France. Like the Basques of the south, they stand alone.
Ethnologists have ascribed their origin, although without conclusive evidence, to the desertion of Huns from Attila’s army during his retreat to the Marne. There seems to be much in the appearance of the valley people to support the theory, although they are typically French in everything but their flat noses and Oriental eyes. . . .
A moment before leaving Tonnerre. . . .
Where the Street of the Bridge is joined by the Street of the Railroad Station is a house with an ornate door. Here lived the strange Chevalier d’Eon, political missionary of Louis XV in Russia and England and the first ultra-feminist of whom history makes any note. In his youth in Tonnerre he adopted women’s clothes because his legs were not of the contour best displayed in silken hose. From that time until his death in 1810 he adhered to the garb of his choice. Even on important foreign missions petticoats and a lace cap were his favorite uniform, and he signed his reports with the name “Chevaliere d’Eon,” a sentimental tribute to the sex he aped. A bit ludicrous the memory of the chevalier. Yet he was typical of Burgundy, where mace-wielders coveted a reputation for charm and lace cuffs decked the strongest sword-arms.
Southward from Auxerre the road winds to Avallon. Few tourists ever see this road, a rollicking, haphazard ascent along cascading brooks and through precipitous gorges. The wayfarer who follows his own whimsies may have a train almost to himself, perfect privacy, and the thrill of a Columbus when he comes to the end of the journey.
Avallona magical isle, or a sleepy little mystery of mossy gray buildings, white roads, vines, and sunlight, a landmark on the highway of Burgundy’s advance? Who will say? In the gloaming when the angelus is sounding from the blackened spire of St. Lazare and the lamps have made golden gratings of the shuttered windows, and a thin gossamer of mist is flowing out of the hills into the valley of the Cousin, then one Avallon might well be the other. There have been stranger things in the old kingdom than a dry-land island, and stranger things than Arthurian legend.
On a summer afternoon when the children are at school and their elders in the fields or taking a siesta, Avallon might be the capital of the Sleeping Beauty before the coming of the Prince.
Up from the railroad station the way leads between green-starred beech-trees. In the white dust of the dazzling road a funeral is slowly plodding along toward the Church of St. Martin. This is the only sign of movement in the long avenue : two priests with pale candles, an acolyte, an open hearse and flag-draped coffin, a dozen mourners carrying umbrellas, the entire cortege intangible and unreal in its veiling of incense”Dies irae, dies illa,” the only sound that competes with the humming of the insects.
At the top of the gentle slope, the Promenade des Capuchins is black in the shadow of great arching trees, cool, quiet, and peaceful. But the benches are vacant and the freshly raked gravel of the walks undisturbed by human foot.
There is a picture in this promenade. At the end of its shadowy greenery is a white portal almost as high as the vaulting of the trees, and indescribably brilliant in the sun. A closer approach shows it to be a monument, a peristyle in front of which the heroic figure of a poilu stands over a fallen comrade. A weird quality in the sculpture and its setting combined conveys the impression of motion suddenly arrested, of flesh and blood held captive there in the white marble.
From the statue an avenue turns to the right and strikes into the heart of the town. But even here there is nothing to evidence human activity. Not a dog is astir in the sun-baked street, not a sound in the air save the distant chants of the funeral procession. Red and white curtains sway lackadaisically in front of deserted butcher shops. Three hotels present a gleaming mass of white walls, white awnings, white porticos, and white shutters, and in the square before them a bronze statue of Marshal Vauban nods as if to avoid the glare.
The statue, a work of Bartholdi, reminds one that Vauban was a native of this district. It is fitting that the fortifications that he built here near his birthplace should endure while the remainder of the masonry that he scattered across the face of Europe has succumbed to the dynamite of the wreckers who followed him.
Behind Vauban is a tree-filled park through which one passes to a lower terrace and then across a shaded square to a bastion and a mass of crumbling wall. Here one comes suddenly upon the magnificent secret of Avallon’s importance to feudalism. One walks the deserted streets without being aware of elevation. The streets are flat as those of a prairie city, and the trees and houses blot out the hills.
But one turns about the bastion, follows a little ruelle to a stone staircase and down, and suddenly comes abreast of a parapet that overhangs the world. For a moment mystic Avallon seems to be suspended in mid-air with the earth dropping sharply away from it.
This lower cincture of the old wall is intact three quarters of the way around the city, although a boulevard and spreading trees take the place of the flags on which the medieval tar-pot wielders stepped their nervous watches. Straight southward it leads along the precipice for about five hundred meters, where it mingles with the outer works of the citadel now vanished.
Here the battlements of the inner walls rise higher and display more clearly their mission in Vauban’s plan of defense. They come to an acute point presently at the Petite Porte opening upon another garden promenade, “The Way of the Little Terrace.”
From this point the heights of the Cousin and the frothy cascade of the torrent itself come upon one with sudden magnificence. One sees the bare granite of the elevation upon which Avallon is perched, a chaos of rock that plunges boldly some two hundred feet down to the river, receding again a few hundred yards farther on as the waters swirl to the eastward. Leaning out into space over the cliff is the advanced bastion of the fortress wall, with the remains of its seven towers still traceable.
Below it terraces of gardens, hanging gardens whose stony buttresses are hidden in foliage, form a mysterious staircase down to the edge of the stream.
There is movement under the wallschildren carrying water to mildewed, windowless houses as their ancestors did centuries aforegone. Five old crones in black sit in the shade of a hedge down by the river road, breaking bread and drinking wine in solemn ceremony. Behind them the valley climbs upward through a carnival of color: fields of purple clover, mossy walls crowned with daisies, roses in the hedge-rows, white clusters nodding under the ancient machicoulis.
On the terrace where the Grand Rue leads from the gate into the town, lilac petals swirl and drift along the walls. The air is scented with roses and pine.
The Church of St. Lazare, another of Avallon’s medieval relics, fronts on this street. It is remarkable chiefly for its carved portals. The interior is a fair example of early Burgundian Gothic with groined vaulting but conceals its treasures in deep shadow even on bright days. To one who would know and understand Burgundy it has one significance aside from its age and artistry. The queer ornamentation of the columns on the interior identifies it immediately as a church of the twelfth-century Cluniac school and hence a work peculiarly Burgundian. These churches mark the spiritual frontier of the old kingdom and prove it to have had an influence far more wide-spread than the scant historical evidence of the chroniclers might lead one to believe. Without St. Lazare a casual visitor might be tempted to classify Avallon with the Isle of France. But the church removes all doubt. To this rock came one of the back-washes of the barbarian invasions. Here Gallo-Roman civilization was choked and died, and here a new culture, typical and virile, was planted and fostered.
Close by the spiral pillars of St. Lazare rises the slim arrow-point of the Tour de l’Horloge, a massive spire erected in 1456 by Jehan Berg over the “New Gate of the Butchers” and a few meters behind an old Roman gate which has now disappeared. It is nearly two hundred feet high and easily the dominating monument of the town.
So much for that Avallon. Its physical properties are romantic enough but somehow fail to explain the charm of the name. I prefer the other Avallonthe transplanted island that seems quite contented here among the fragrant hills, far from the luminous sea in which folk-lorists believe it so firmly anchored. The choice is open. There are any number of Avallonais who will overlook the minor detail of the absent ocean and admit without hesitancy that their town contains the ghoststhe very tangible ghostsof the brave King Arthur of the Round Table, Ogier the Dane, and Charlemagne. Few towns, even in Burgundy, could boast a more striking assemblage of distinguished guests.
Guillaume Ferraud, proprietor of an auberge in the Place Vauban, was stirring about among the marble tables when I returned from the walls. He was quite surprised when I broached the subject of luncheon. It was obvious that only an unexplainable foreigner would be seeking food at a time when he might just as well be sleeping. He consented to gratify the strange whim and led me across a Moorish courtyard, about which ranged latticed balconies on thin iron pillars. A fountain played in a moss-green bowl at the far end, and birds were circling about in search of crumbs. Monsieur Guillaume was still grumbling as he showed me to a seat in a closely shuttered dining-room, and plainly out of patience when he showed me the menu. It was not until I asked him about the health of the late King Arthur that he forgave my indiscretion in asking for food.
King Arthur ! He had not heard of him since the war. But he knew all about him. . . . Oh, yes, since he was a child he had known about him. . . . And why not? Was not this Avallon?
“This King Arthur was an Englishman,” he began as he spread out the serviette. “And he was a good man. I ’11 grant you that, although I am as strong a republican as my great-grandfather who fought with Napoleon.
“Everything is clear about Arthur except how he died. Merlin the wizard told the chroniclers that he had gone to Avallon, an island floating somewhere near sunken Lyonesse. And for a long time no one knew where that island was.
“But consider the evidence. In the first place, Merlin was a necromancer and a reprobate. He was the last per-son in the world who would tell the truth.
“In the second place, consider the description; Avallon near Lyonesse. Lyonesse might mean the sunken city off the coast of Gales and then again it might mean Lyon of Gaul. If the matter of the island were worth argument it is not hard to imagine that this spot was once an island.
“But the story: Your King Arthur went to Avallon and fell asleep in a crystal cave. The English believed that one day he would wake up and rescue Britain from its enemies.
“Arthur isn’t alone in Avallon. You have heard the stories of Charlemagne and his paladins, and of his son Roland who was killed fighting the Saracens at Roncesvalles, and of Ogier the Dane, his mightiest swordsman. What men ! But they died, monsieur, they died, and their dust is scattered. . . . But Ogier’s death was not like the death that visits other mortals. Ogier went into a magic slumber such as Arthur’s, and he, too, was whisked away to Avallon to await the call to arms.
“For that matter, Charlemagne is sleeping there with the rest of them. The body sitting in the tomb at Aix-la-Chapelle with the great sword between its knees is not that of the great Charles. He came to Avallon, not to Odenburg as the silly Germans asserted; and he is sitting there in the crystal hall waiting his summons from the grave.
“You have heard of Barbarossa, monsieurFrederick of the red beard who was Germany’s great emperor? They tell a story like that about him, too. He is sleeping in a mountain in Thuringia. He is seated at a stone table; how they know that, I can’t tell you; they make up such silly stories, the Germans. He has been there so long that his beard has grown through the table and has begun to entwine itself about the stone top. The legend was that when it had twisted about the table four times the great Red-Beard would come to life.”
“When do you suppose that all of these resurrections are to take place?” I inquired.
He shook his head. When he replied he leaned forward confidentially.
“If you ask me I ‘d say that they have taken place already,” he said. “Perhaps I ‘m not the one who should be giving an opinion, monsieur, but it appears to me that the whole lot of them came back to earth in 1914. The people who write the histories have paid no attention to the fact that when four great conquerors get out of their tombs to lead their people into battle, some of them are going to be beaten. . . . And that was the way of it in 1914. Charlemagne, Arthur, and Ogier came back to rescue France and England. Barbarossa was on Germany’s side, but the odds were too strong for him to do anything. He was only one against three, and then, besides, he had von Kluck to contend with. . . .”
He paused to take a sip of wine and smile.
I thought that I had solved the mystery of the magical inland isle as I left the hotel. The white dust had turned golden in the afternoon sunlight, and the gate of the old fortifications, the Tower of the Horloge, and the spire of St. Lazare stood out against the sky in luminous relief. The marks of decay, the wrinkles of age, were effaced in the play of light and shadow, and Avallon appeared suddenly to be its real self, a creation independent of time. It was not that the sleeping warriors had lingered on into the time of present-day Avallon; present-day Avallon had never emerged from the magical years of Charlemagne.
In the Promenade des Capucins, a golden-haired miss of about three years sat gazing enraptured at a pair of silver slippers.
“They are very pretty,” she told me as I stopped before her.
“They are surely that,” I admitted. “And quite fashionable. How old are you, petite?”
“Next week,” was the amazing answer.
“What is your name, cherie?” I pursued.
“They are surely pretty and quite fashionable,” she re-plied seriously, and she raised one foot to her lap for closer inspection. . . .
“Do you live near here, little one’?”
“There isn’t any more.”
Truly a Mad Hatter conversation, but, for all that, a conversation that seemed permeated with the atmosphere of the place. So I pursued the subject no further. I kissed my chance acquaintance good-by and passed on through the promenade, leaving the puzzle of enchanted Avallon and its sleeping kings to the more active minds of golden-haired maids with silver slippers.
The rocky region where the Yonne, Cure, Cousin, Serein, and Armancon flow northward to join the Seine has many points of interest and a few practical mysteries other than the mythical rendezvous of the dead conquerors. About twelve miles southeast of Avallon is Quarre les Tombes, which, for some unaccountable reason, is the only town in France that has more tombstones than would be necessary were it to allot two apiece to the illustrious but sadly moldered ancestors who occupy its ancient churchyard. The village takes its name from a stone-yard near the church, where large quantities of unused grave-markers lay for centuries. Those who advance any explanation at all for the glutted tombstone market in these parts say that at one time this hill was a depot which supplied most of medieval Burgundy with cemetery equipment. It is impossible to fix the date at which this industry flourished.
Still farther southeast of Avallon is a former Benedictine abbey called Ste-Marie-de-la-Pierre-qui-Vire. The abbey took its name from a druidic dolman of consider-able size, which, according to local legend, turned around three times of its own accord on Christmas day in 1853. It has not moved since.
Vezelay, a small town on an eminence above the Cure, houses phantoms no less important than the warriors of Avallon. Here St. Bernard came to send out his call to the second crusade, and it was here that the clans of Richard Coeur de Lion and Philippe Auguste mobilized in the service of the cross.
Vezelay’s decline was similar to that of the other abbey cities of France. It gained importance and wealth when the reputed relics of Mary Magdalene were brought to it from Provence, where the Saracens were active. It maintaind its position until it was sacked by the revolutionists.
“Its ramparts are in ruin,” says Poree in his monograph on the abbey. “Its mournful streets, where ancient dwellings contrast with the mediocrity of the modern, attest its decadence. But it preserves a magnificent testimonial to its departed grandeur : its abbey church, whose spires attach to the heavens.”
This church was restored by Viollet-le-Duc and is now virtually the same in every detail as it was when St. Louis visited it before starting on the crusade that ended in his death.
About twenty miles due east of Avallon, well along toward the outer edge of the granite upheaval that characterizes northern Burgundy, is Semur-en-Auxoisa feudal stronghold of the Ardennes in architecture, construction, natural protection, and everything save geographyswaggering insolently on a rocky hill that rises out of the Armancon.
The little river made of this place a natural site for a castle by attempting to convert a rugged promontory into an island. It fell just short of success, isolating the pedestal of granite on three sides. On the point thus carved the Gauls, Romans, Franks, and Burgundians by turns built and occupied strongholds which, until the introduction of gunpowder into feudal affairs, were considered impregnable.
The belief in the strength of the chateau that eventually grew out of all these occupations was well founded. The four granite towers of the donjon, great round piles with candle-snuffer roofs, rise out of the town to-day as insolently as they did in the good old bloody days of feudalism. They have been there for hundreds of years and apparently will be there hundreds of years from now.
That other portions of the castle have vanished is not due to any defect in their manufacture. The keep was assaulted with torch, battering-ram, and solid shot during the days when Henry IV was having his troubles with the civil war of the late sixteenth century. The cannon-balls bounced off the round towers, and the torches burned out on the granite slabs with which the place was roofed.
Henry moved the parliament here from Dijon in 1590, assured that he would be safe from the Leaguers, who just about that time were making his life a burden. And he was not disappointed in his hope for protection. Semur never fell into enemy hands.
The great king proved himself a more efficient destroyer than artillery twelve years later when he tore the donjon apart from the inside.
The castle ghosts, however, remained billeted upon the community long after this ancient appanage of the dukes of Autun had been battered down to the rock that gave it root.
There is a local banshee that howls like a wolf through the valley when the souls of the descendants of the ancient lords of the castle are passing. There is a blond siren who would lure the foolish to their death in the unplumbed oubliettes of the old towers. Her reputation is well established, for it was only a decade ago that a vintner of Semur was found dead under the walls as the result of her wiles. He had been to the annual festival of the Semur Musical Society and had started home shortly after midnight with only as much wine in his custody as might be counted an abstemious ration for a vintner on such an occasion. And he walked along the crumbling ramparts, enticed, as any one in the vicinity will tell you, by the beckoning wraith with the blond hair. There is no other way to account for his presence in the vicinity, for his home was on the other side of town. His end was the usual end of those who follow the Burgundian siren: he made a misstep and fell a hundred feet or more.
One of the most notable of the local apparitions is that of Duke Robert, a hot-headed ruler of the Capetian line. He was the brother of Henry I of France, who reigned from 1031 to 1060. It is quite logical that so turbulent a person as Robert should not be content to re-main entombed. There are many reasons why his ghost should be forced to wander about the face of the earth. He organized a revolution against his brother, seized Burgundy, and established himself as its sovereign on an equal footing with kings, and, after the fashion of Burgundian rulers in all stages of history, was mixed up in every intrigue of his period. His protracted stay in Semur, however, is due not to these small errors but to a matter concerning a fish.
Hugh, the father-in-law of Robert, was seigneur of Semur and on one unfortunate occasion invited his distinguished relative to dinner. Robert, with that fine politeness so much a characteristic of the eleventh century, complained bitterly over the quality of the fish served by the seigneur. Hugh replied in kind, whereupon the patience of Robert became exhausted and he was forced to silence his father-in-law by braining him with a stool.
Take them by and large, the wraiths of Semur must be an imposing spectacle as they pass in reviewFrankish chiefs, Burgundian ladies, restless crusaders, bearded Huguenots. I am sure it would be worth any one’s time to stay here and watch for themif only the moon, and the wind, and the barometer and the what-not should ever be in proper accord.