Besancon, east of Dijon and on the frontier of old Burgundy, shares the mystery of the other cities of the kingdom, and much of their strength. It was here that Julius Caesar, conqueror of Gaul, looked up at the gaunt rock zoned by the River Dubis and said, “In this spot with a legion of men I could defy the world.” Military engineers ever since have been echoing his words as they piled layer after layer of concrete and steel upon the foundations that he left there.
Glimpsed as one emerges from the tunnel on top of the divide near Saone, it is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. From the plateau a white road drops away to the river between tall poplars. Trim forests march up the slope to the left; vineyards and wheat-fields, terraced and checkerboarded, form a grand staircase down to the luminous water. Ahead, a brownish band in the blue distance, are the walls of Besancon. They are modern fortifications now, masking deadly cannon, but little changed in contour and appearance from the days when the Romans first made this place an outpost of empire in Gaul.
A turn through the square gray town under the railroad trestle, and the road moves out to the edge of a cliff so high above the Doubs that the song of the rapids is scarcely audible, so high that the midsummer haze makes of the river a zone of gossamer laid upon a green carpet.
The air is clear. The workers in the fields on the heights across the valley can be plainly seen. And there is a summery, Sunday-like quiet about things in which familiar sounds seem to lose themselves or change their identity. A gardener in some unseen nook is sharpening his sickle, and the scrape of stone on metal comes up to us in a vibrant echo like an unclassified chirping of an insect. There are voices all about : the voices of those vintners on the cliff opposite, the voice of the woman by the river singing an aria from “Manon,” the voices of three children in the dusty road of the sleepy town, and other voices that carry from Heaven knows where, lazy voices only half heard . . . whispers.
Under the brown old fort the road suddenly shakes itself and scurries straight through the cliff wall by way of an embattled cleft. There is moss in the slits where the portcullis glided. An old man in a blue smock sits on a stone at the side of the arch and gazes into the distance with eyes as hazy as the smoke-blue of the valley. Once a Roman spearman held that postand what a line of military after him!and now an old man, with fading eyes, sits there and smokes his pipe, not feeling their presence nor caring that they ever lived.
An automobile roars through the little tunnel and up the white road toward Pontarlier. A donkey drawing a two-wheeled cart plods sleepily after it. The gate is not wide enough to permit the passage of two vehicles abreast, and it is noticeably scraped at the height of an artillery hub. Thousands of guns passed through this portal from 1914 to 1918, guns on their way down from the artillery-center at Valdahon to the battle-line. They left their brassy signature in passing.
Besancon has always been known for the beauty of its setting rather than for its interesting historical remains, but there is much to be found in its winding, secretive streets that will be worth the attention of any antiquarian. Con-tent in its modernity, defying the future from its grim ram-parts, it makes no bid for the interest of tourists.
There are dozens of Roman ruins scattered about the old city, some of them incorporated in modern dwellings, others slowly disintegrating amid vine-coverings of their own. The remains of a temple, probably of the Augustan era, stand near the Mouilliere and have been deemed of enough importance as a monument to give a name to the Place Archeologique.
Down in the center of the city is the Black Gate, commemorating some forgotten triumph of some forgotten Roman, and beyond it a cobbled square that might be the setting for a scene from the life of d’Artagnan.
Victor Hugo was born near this arch. A bronze plate and a fountain mark the house where he spent his boyhood. And within a stone’s throw is the Palais Granvelle, em-bracing a cloistered court.
Besancon produced few more famous men than these same Granvelles. The first duke of the name was minister of finance under the great Charles Quint, who needed a minister of finance more probably than any other European monarch since the death of his illustrious great-grandfather, Charles the Bold. The Spanish influence of this association is evidenced in the architecture of the home that Granvelle built for himself by the Doubs, a cloistered Castilian palace that has brought a strangely exotic Moorish atmosphere to this portion of old Roman Gaul.
Antoine Perrenot, Lord of Granvelle, was born in this house in 1517. He stepped into the court of the Emperor Charles V to positions of an importance out of all keeping with his age and experience. Then, despiteor perhaps because ofthe close connection between his family and the politics of his age, he took up the study of theology at Padua, Paris, and Louvain. When he was twenty-three years old he was made bishop of Arras.
His father, Nicholas Perrenot, had served’Charles ably as secretary of state, and his influence kept the talents of the young bishop in the eye of the emperor. Granvelle has been rated highly in church histories, but his acquaintance with theology does not seem to have hampered him in politics. He brought about the marriage between Philip II, son of Charles, and Mary of England, and then seems to have given most of his time to church affairs. He was made archbishop of Malines in 1560 and a cardinal in 1561. As a representative of the austere religious rule of the Spanish court, he incurred the enmity of the people of the Netherlands and found himself faced by a union of William of Orange, Margaret of Parma, and the Counts of Hoorn and Egmont, who demanded his removal. In 1564 he retired at his own request to the cloistered courts of his Besancon home, where he passed the remaining years of his life in scientific research.
A picture, this: Well dressed men and women, comfort-ably fixed middle-class folk, walk without haste in the gardens. Heavy-footed horses and strange little street-cars pursue a leisurely course toward the city. A captain of cavalry and a pretty brown-haired girl in a dress of pink stand in the warm spring sunlight by the stone railing of the bridge, gazing toward the cascade where a dam ruffles the quiet river. They are holding hands, oblivious of the rest of the world, a picture of content. From a convent by the Doubs comes the chant of nuns at their noonday offices. Besancon goes on about its business quietly, with the philosophical attitude of a graybeard toward the haste of youth. And this is the anomaly : here at the edge of the water, under the frowning citadel that the Romans founded, is the greatest watch-factory in France. A step from the quiet garden, the delicate lathes are turning and some of the world’s most skilful artisans are piecing together springs and balances and tiny gears that shortly will be marking the pace of commerce and industry for the nation. In one of those low buildings is made an instrument of precision that will split a second into ten equal parts. The cavalry officer by the bridge probably has one of them in his pocket.
The bell in the clocher of Notre Dame sounds noon. It is six minutes fast. The lovers by the bridge-rail have not heard, so engrossed are they in the purling waters beneath the arch.
“It must be nearly noon,” says the girl with a sigh that the comment does not seem exactly to warrant.
“Yes,” replies the officer. “It is either a few minutes before or a few minutes after noon. I can tell by the shadows of the old oak there.” He does not take the trouble to look at his watch. . . . Minutes! Let an infant worry about them. Besancon measures its times in centuries.
The quiet of the town, however, is the quiet of the laboratory rather than the stillness of sleep. The Franche-Comte has furnished its quota of great men to every era of the piebald history in which it has figured. And it has done its bit in scientific research.
The world’s first steamboat sailed the Doubs River near this point, and it was on the outskirts of Besancon that Armande Jouffroi, its inventor, carried on his endless labors.
The revolution stopped all experimentation and the steamboat that Jouffroi built lay rotting at its dock in Besancon for ten years while Robert Fulton, working along different lines, steamed to success in the Half Moon.
The valley of the Doubs below Besancon is remarkable for its possession of the only sleep-walking ghost in this world or the next. The ghost, strangely enough even in the case of so exceptional a spirit, is not Burgundian but Swiss. He appears to peasants in the proper frame of mind as an armored warrior of the fifteenth century and has per-formed at least one service for the community in that he has stimulated the study of medieval history.
In life this phantom somnambulist was John, Lord of Stratlingen, who fought in the army of Charles the Bold before Montlhery and continued in the Burgundian service until the fatal campaign against the Swiss Confederation. It was during a minor phase of the struggle between Duke Philip the Good and Louis XI that he acquired the reputation that he took with him to the other side of the grave and back again.
This is the legend :
The Burgundians and French had met in the valley after much manoeuvering and tiresome forced marches. As was quite usual in warfare of that particular campaign, neither side was very eager to fight. So for three days they sat glowering at one another, hoping for a good excuse to do some more maneuvering.
At this juncture Charles, who knew that nothing was to be gained by wasting men in a skirmish that would have no effect upon an issue that had been decided at Montlhery, sent a messenger to the camp of Louis with a challenge to a single combat. He was confident of success, inasmuch as he knew, or thought he knew, every warrior of merit in the French ranks.
But it seems that the French had cruelly deceived him. Somewhere in their wanderings they had picked up a giant whose sword was as heavy as the usual contents of an arsenal and whose immense frame was covered with armor an inch thick. This heavy-weight champion of Louis’s troops appeared in person to answer the challenge. Charles the Bold was visibly upset to see him.
The Burgundian commander could do nothing but post the entry in accordance with the terms of the challenge, though he foresaw that in the normal course of affairs this encounter was likely to disrupt a few of his plans for empire. The combat was set for high noon of the following day; the giant returned to the French camp; and Charles the Bold reviewed his troops. When he called for a volunteer to uphold the honor of the cross of St. Andrew and the chivalry of Burgundy, he encountered a lamentable apathy. Even his most energetic knights declined the dignity so freely offered. The day was as good as lost for Burgundy when John of Stratlingen stepped forward.
“I am willing to undertake this mission,” he said. “But I shall insist upon perfect silence on the part of our men until I have put this French upstart in his place. One cheer ahead of time might cause all sorts of trouble.”
Charles the Bold saw nothing peculiar in the request. He would not have thought it odd if the knight had demanded a string-band to play for him while he fought. In those days all of the best fighters had their little idiosyncrasies.
So, shortly before noon, John of Stratlingen marched out into no-man’s land, lay down under a shade-tree, and went to sleep with his sword by his side. Charles was frankly concerned about this. It would be well within the rules of such a duel were the French giant to pin John to the tree as he slept. But he had passed his word that there should be no interference from the Burgundian ranks, and, be-sides, there was no one to substitute for the Lord of Stratlingen.
Presently the French champion took the field amid a blaring of trumpets and a tumult of cheering. Then occurred a thing which even my chronicler was ready to concede a bit odd. Before the astonished warriors there appeared to be two Lords of Stratlingen, one of them still stretched in slumber beneath the tree, the other striding forward to meet the steel-clad Goliath. The second Stratlingen was of so thin a texture that his astonished companions could see straight through him to the poplar-trees half a mile down the Doubs. He seemed suffused, however, with a light that was brilliant even in the midday sun, and he walked shoulder to shoulder with a being even thinner than himself whom the cutthroats of Charles the Bold recognized at once as the Archangel Michael. The soldiery needed no further instructions about keeping the peace. Their tongues stuck to the roofs of their mouths, and the valley was so quiet that frogs a mile beyond the river were clearly heard.
To such an encounter there could be but one ending. The French giant’s face suddenly blanched, and he dropped the visor of his helmet. He walked forward with the shuffling, reluctant step of a man on his way to the gallows, and there was no gaiety in the gesture with which he lifted his ponderous sword. There were three lunges, quick as streaks of light, during which the Frenchman seemed to be striking at thin air. Then his head suddenly fell to the ground, and his iron-covered body dropped on top of it. . . .
It is perfectly natural that the returning ghost of John of Stratlingen should take the form that it took on the day of that famous battle. John remained wide-awake, save for natural periods of slumber, during the remainder of his service in Burgundy, and, so far as is known, until the day of his death. No other somnambulistic battle, before or since the Besancon duel, has been marked to his credit, but, being a medieval hero, he must fit his appearance to the demand of legend. And so he has been sleep-walking ever since.