A story of love undying echoes through the empty vaults of old Beaucaire. Once this chateau on the heights above the Rhone opposite Tarascon was among the strongest of the valley. Its knights wrought prodigious feats of arms and grew in wealth and power. Those who looked up at the thick, triangular towers in the days of Beaucaire’s glory believed that such a structure must share the immortality of the pyramids, that the splendors of the race that built it would never die. But the castle is crumbling like so many another castle in Provence. Stone by stone all but one of the towers have dropped to the earth from which they sprang. The massive arches gape in the center, and the buttresses are reduced to their foundation-stones. The deeds of the men-at-arms of Beaucaire are forgotten. Their immortality has been quite like the immortality achieved by the rest of us. And yet they live. Provence is better for having seen their day, and all because of an epic love, a structure that was stronger than bricks and mortar.
And they tell this tale:
Duke Gian of Beaucaire was at war with Count Bougars of Valence, and the Valencian warriors were at the castle gates. Gian, infirm as the result of age and early piety, made a vain effort to rally his troops to the countercharge. But his men were sick of warfare.
Despite the fact that they outnumbered their opponents and were better swordsmen, take them man for man, they were wearied by this eternal battling for abstruse principles that they could not understand. They sat under the walls and rolled dice while the firebrands of Valence were describing dangerous arcs over the parapet and toward the roof of the donjon tower.
Duke Gian, cursing the calendar for the scurvy trick that it had played upon him, and recalling with every twinge of his rheumatic knees the somewhat loose discipline of certain crusading battalions in which he had served, stalked into the Salle des Gardes, where he found his brave son Aucassin seated in a window embrasure, gazing steadfastly at a rose. The father threw up his hands in despair.
“Are you a son of mine,” he inquired with reason, “that you sit there mooning when there is a man’s work to be done without?”
“What ‘s going on out there?” asked Aucassin, with the perfunctory interest that a young man is naturally sup-posed to exhibit in anything that his father says.
“A first-class battle is going on out there,” replied the duke. “A battle that we might be winning if you were a man instead of a nincompoop.”
“I wonder if my perspective will be like yours when I am your age,” he observed absently. “Now when you should be sitting quietly and preparing to end your days in some sort of decorum, you are prating about battles and calling upon me to go out and wield a silly old tar-pot. You fail utterly to see my point of view; you are selfish enough to think there is no point of view except your own. And I am free to confess that you exasperate me beyond words.”
The old man threw up his hands and became quite apoplectic.
“When I was your age ” he began. But Aucassin silenced him with a respectful interruption.
“Let us not go into that, Father. I have heard you say that you gave no thought to love and that your en-tire life was spent in the saddle. If you have been telling me the truth, I don’t see why you aren’t in better shape now. They say that the life of the campaign is strenuout but healthful. But, all that aside, you know my attitude. I am perfectly willing to fight and chase these wooden-headed carpet-knights back to Valence or Vienne or even farther north. But I would marry Nicolette ! Ah, Nicolette ! So fair! So unattainable.”
Now, they tell it in the songs of the troubadours, this Nicolette was the daughter of the king of Carthage, a princess brought captive to Beaucaire after a campaign by the knights of that house against the Saracens.
Aucassin fell in love with her at first sight, so deeply in love that he fainted from sheer emotion.
But of course such a match was out of the question. The duke of Beaucaire could never consent to accept a slave as a daughter-in-law. He ordered that the girl be kept in a part of the castle where she would seldom be seen by the amorous Aucassin, and he sent pilgrims, soldiers, scholars, priests, and aristocrats skilled in the eugenics of the time to show that any liaison with this Carthaginian maiden was certain to be fraught with trouble.
And there the matter stood when the duke of Valence laid siege to Beaucaire.
“You ‘ll go out and fight like a man, or you ‘ll go into irons like a dog,” declared Duke Gian. “If this had happened when I was a boy I ‘d have been hanged to the corner of the tower out there as a coward. And had there been any wench in the world comely enough to turn my head I ’11 warrant you she ‘d have been pilloried in the courtyard to watch the hanging. The young men nowadays have things too easy; that ‘s the whole trouble. They make verses and play the guitar and walk moon-eyed in flower-gardens. And they can’t ride or joust or swing a sword. Damn the verses! Damn the tinkle-tinkle music ! Damn the flowers !”
“You are only working yourself up into a passion, Father,” replied Aucassin soothingly. “There is just one thing in the world that I want, and that isn’t your moldy old castle nor the estates of Beaucaire. You can dispose of them as you please, to Bougars of Valence or anybody else. But I suppose that to keep peace in the family I shall have to go out to your silly old fight.”
He threw aside his rose and yawned.
“Ho, varlet,” he called. “See if you can find my buckler. You might curry my horse, too, and be as quick as you can about it.”
Now, they say that Aucassin rode out and gave a very good account of himself against the troops of Valence. The men of Beaucaire took courage at the sight of him, for it looked like a return to the old times when their fair knight was the most dexterous blade in all Provence. Aucassin, without bothering to unsheathe his sword, swung out through the gate and over the drawbridge to the charge.
The mistral was blowing, and the air was white with dust, through which the knights moved like gray ghosts. Nicolette, imprisoned in the castle, could make nothing of the combat until presently the warriors of Valence abandoned the field and fled northward on the Avignon road.
As for Aucassin, they tell of him that shortly “his love-malady returned to him” and that he held to the road as a man in a trance, outdistancing his retainers and pressing close upon the Valencians alone.
Still unconscious, Aucassin suddenly found himself in the midst of the enemy knights who were plotting his death. Only the memory of Nicolette saved him then. He knew that unless he disposed of these foemen he could never again return to the Castle of Beaucaire. He pictured the sorrow of Nicolette standing by her little window awaiting him. Also he pictured himself lying face down with his visor full of mud and his mail-clad feet spiked into the lush soil of the lowlands; and that picture was intensely moving.
So he set about with his two-handed sword, and he killed ten men in less time than it would take a troubadour to sing it. One must admit that Aucassin had a way with him.
But even such exploits with the sword failed to convince Duke Gian that the youth and the slave girl were suited to one another. Aucassin persisted in his love and so exasperated his aged parent that the old man declared for a stern regime in the interests of discipline. The pair were imprisoned, the girl in a little-used wing of the castle, the languishing knight in an isolated tower.
Thus far the romance is ludicrous enough even in its more serious moments. But there follow passages of lyric beauty, passages in which one hears the voices of the troubadours and the sighing of their fair audiences.
Nicolette looks from her window into the valley filled with May-time sunlight “when the days are warm, and long, and clear, and the nights coy and serene.” One night she sees the moon floating just outside her little window and hears the philomel singing in the fragrant garden, and she thinks of Aucassin asleep in his guarded tower.
Nicolette is afraid. She knows that she is mortally hated by the duke of Beaucaire and that at any moment she may be thrown into the river or burned at the stake. . . . The old woman who guards the chamber is asleep. And so Nicolette weaves her bedding into a rope, which she attaches to the window-casing. Silently she lowers herself into the garden and darts like a white shadow in the moonlight through the streets of Beaucaire to the tower of Aucassin.
Leaning against the pillars of the tower, she hears her lover weeping bitterly.
Here singeth one Walter Pater in his translation of the ancient chanson :
Her hair was yellow in small curls, her smiling eyes blue-green, her face clear and feat, the little lips very red, the teeth small and white ; and the daisies, which she crushed in passing holding her skirt high behind and before, looked dark against her feet, the maid was so white.
And so Nicolette left word with her lover while she fled into the woodland, where she marked a trail with forest flowers.
May time passes, and the woods of June are fragrant and cool and brilliant with leaping shadows and vagrant color. The old Roman roads are deep in grasses.
Nicolette built a little hut in the forest where seven moss-covered by-paths branched from the main Roman high-way into seven different destinies.
And presently, so they tell it in Beaucaire, came Aucassin, led thither by a flaming bird. Hand in hand the lovers wandered southward through Provence intending to em-bark aboard a galley on the languid sea. But once more they were separated.
The troubadours sing that Aucassin, li biax, li blond Li gentix, li amorous,
continued his search for his lost love through the lower Rhone country and on across the Levant. He returned after many moons to Marseille, and there, quite by accident, he found the royal slave selling strange pastries to itinerant soldiers and sailors. Thus united, the pair lived happily until death.
Walter Pater in his essays on the Renaissance picks this recently rediscovered romance of medieval France as an indication of a revolt against asceticism. He cites Aucassin’s rather impertinent replies to the dignitaries who would convince him of the error of his love.
Which leads one to wonder how much asceticism there was in some of these medieval courts against which one might find reason to revolt. Personal restraint was some-thing that the feudal lord, so intense in love and hate, believed to be an excellent virtue in some one else.
Aucassin has revolted against death, and with considerable success if one is to credit local gossip. He and the Lady Nicolette walk hand in hand over the broken ter-races of Beaucaire, “when the days are warm and clear, and long, and the nights coy and serene.” They are there in the full of the moon when the nightingale is singing the chanson of their undying love. He is still the White Knight in gleaming armor, and she”Her face featly fashioned, the nose high and fairly set, the lips more red than cherry or rose in time of summer, her teeth white and small, her locks yellow and curled, her eyes blue and smiling.”
But no one can see them save only true lovers, which may be responsible for the fact that so many young folk of Tarascon and Beaucaire have looked upon them, and so few of the descriptions agree.