France – Chalon Sur Saone

CHALON-SUR-SAONE, observes the naive guide-book, “is a dull old town of Roman origin.” There follow some notes on the architecture of the Church of St. Marcel and a suggestion or two concerning the roads that lead from this point to others of greater interest to the tourist.

“A dull old town of Roman origin!” If the spirit of the gracious Bertille still lingers hereabouts, and most of the townsfolk will assure you that it does, the lady of the three golden crowns must have smiled at that, and with her smiled a hundred other genial ghosts who have kept vigil on the banks of the placid river since the surrender of Vercingetorix.

True, there is a branch of Le Creusot here, a forge where a very prosaic modern Vulcan hammers out cannon and torpedo-boats and parts for locomotives. The mysterious whisperings that echo over the Saone are whisperings that would be no mystery at all to a resident of Gary or Pitts-burgh. Industrialism with calloused hands and a dirty face is on the horizon in Chalon and the writers of such poetic lines as

Hotel du Commerce, 6 f., opp. Cathedral

are not to be blamed for their unwillingness to look for medieval romance beneath a coating of modem soot.

The medieval towers that flanked the old bridge are gone, and there is little to suggest the city of cutlass and buckler that was built upon the powdering ramparts of Rome. An automobile camion rattles over the pocked stone arches. A railroad train whistles shrilly. A motor-boat breasts the slow current of the Saone. From the near distance comes the woodpecker song of a pneumatic riveter . . all of this a far cry from the days of Gondicaire and his hungry Burgundians, but none the less a place of enchantment that time does not change.

Here, when this town was the capital of the first Burgundian kings and the terminal of navigation on the Saone, the beauty and skill of Christendom foregathered. Not until the collapse of feudalism did Chalon lose its standing as a rendezvous for chevaliers. Here in the days of Philip the Good the renowned Jacques Lalain, Burgundian Don Quixote, billeted his horse and hung up his armor when he was not out upon the road looking for combat.

Here at an earlier date were held the river pageants that made Burgundy famous throughout the civilized world. The last pageant of which there is official record was prepared in 1371 by Philip the Hardy, first of the Valois dukes of Burgundy, who had been invited to a carnival in his honor at Avignon by his brother, the duke of Anjou.

A great fleet of barges carried the duke of Burgundy and his suite—immense scow-shaped vessels quite similar to the modern canal-boat, but covered outside from water-line to rail with gilt, and finished below decks with matched woods, carved and polished. The duke and his immediate household rode in one of these bulky yachts. Next came the barge of the chancellor and lesser nobles, the kitchens, floating dining-hall, the wine-cellars, and the fish supply.

At Avignon, so the chronicle goes, Philip gave the pope a splendid horse and carriage—brought from Chalon on a specially constructed float—two flagons of gold, and a huge silver basin studded with emeralds. Special gifts, similarly extravagant in design and material, were presented to the entire college of cardinals. The celebration from the point of view of color and general hilarity was something of a success. When it was concluded Philip pawned all that remained of his personal jewelry with a Lombard for twenty thousand francs to pay the canalboat-men and other attendants on the way back to Chalon.

There is considerable other lore of that same sort in circulation in Chalon. The pounding of the forges has not driven poetry from the conversation that one hears before the broad fireplace or about the cabinet-like stoves on a wintry night. Nor will it, for in France there is always a sentiment, a will to believe, beneath the most pronounced skepticism.

It is because the chanson of the troubadour is still echoing through Burgundy like the call of the herald bird that can be heard only by ears attuned that the story-interest of Chalon continues to center upon a bit of the old city wall, a fragment of gray stone masonry crossed with three parallel bands of golden porphyry. This bit of pre-Charlemagne Burgundy is all that remains to give evidence to the authenticity of the romance of Bertille. Bertille the saintly is still the patron of letters in Chalon. And this is her story:

Back from the wars rode Gontran, King of the Burgundians. From her room in her father’s house, Bertille of the Golden Hair looked down upon a splendid spectacle.

A cool breeze, following the Saone out of the Jura, brought with it a hint of rain and a reminiscence of spring-time, although the vineyards were purpling and summer was well nigh done. It carried the murmuring of the pine forests that pressed old Chalon on the outskirts where once Roman farms had borne a golden harvest. The air was pungent with strange scents: balsam and lilacs from the verdure of the city’s gardens, musk and aromatics and rancid oil and tar from the persons of the oddly garbed warriors in Gontran’s train.

Bertille, unused to royal pomp, stood with her hands clasped at her breast and scarcely dared to breathe lest this wonderful dream should vanish. . . . There was Gontran himself, the perfect figure of a Frankish king, a bit of a tatterdemalion, it is true, but still impressive. His red robes had once been a brilliant scarlet; now they were dulled to rusty, reddish brown. The silver casque that crowned his long hair was battered and tarnished. The wrought iron of his armorings was black with age. Brasses, green with verdigris, hung from the trappings of his big black horse. The hoofs of his mount had once been gilded, but this decoration was well nigh obliterated by mud splashes.

Gontran sat straight in his cordovan saddle, a picture of kingly pride. No puny monarch this, a chief by prowess rather than ancestry. It was only natural that the great two-handed sword which hung across his back should be the longest in the troop and that his shoulders should be as broad as those of the most formidable of his hard-bitten followers. He seemed conscious of the awe with which the populace greeted his glittering cavalcade and justly elated that he should have been the one to treat ancient Chalon to so magnificent a display.

Behind him clattered as varied a collection of curiosities as ever returned from a campaign, a swashbuckling lot, these lesser chief of the command, with faces brown as the leather shields that swayed at their sides; hairy Franks, gloomy Visigoths who seemed strangely out of place in the assemblage, lean Gauls of haughty bearing, and stalwart, smiling Burgundians. Some of them were in an armor that appeared to be as flimsy as it was delightfully novel, an all-covering coat of linked chain that jingled with every step of the horses. It, too, was rusty or black. But there was little of this audacious departure from established fashions in gear. Generally the fighting men wore the more ancient accoutrements of iron-scaled hide, with Roman helmets or Gallic leathern caps or no head-covering at all. The gaily colored rags of their clothing, the much worn loot of battles, streamed from their tanned arms and legs. . . . Scraps of silk fluttered from uplifted lances. Color flamed along the column where the devices of attendant princelings, suitors for favor at Gontran’s court, loomed through the cloud of white dust.

And the troops, too, looking upon the familiar buildings of old Chalon for the first time in many weeks, experienced the effect of a wondrous vision: the green mosses on the gray Roman archways, the roses, the purple flowers along the road, the old men who cheered them, the women who smiled at them.

As the pounding of drums, the fanfare of long bronze trumpets, the pounding of iron shoes, and the tinkling of mail heralded the march of the cavaliers up from the river through the old Roman town, Bertille stood fascinated, unaware that she might be attracting as much attention as she bestowed upon Gontran and his knights.

The knightly pageant passed on through the crooked street toward the Chapel of St. Marcel where Gontran was convening a council of his lords with the princes of the faith. And all passed the door of Bertille’s father’s house without a glance for guerdon, until, near the end of the long column, there rode into view Amalon, the free-lance of Champagne.

Amalon had traveled far afield during thirty years of battling. He had fought in the high hills of far Aquitaine and on the bleak slopes of Armorica. He had set a lance in the narrow valleys of Austrasia and had unsheathed his sword in the Camargue. Wherever there had been fighting the pennon of Amalon had been to the fore. And it had been whispered rather freely that when the bloody work of the day had been completed he had never been too weary to cast an appreciative eye upon the beauties of the vicinity. He knew women as he knew his tricks of swordsmanship : the black-eyed, black-haired Grecians of Provence; the fair, quiet, smoldering Franks of his own neighborhood; the stately Visigoths of Aquitaine; and the tall, supple, strong Burgundian damosels of Gontran’s realm. He could prattle words of love in any of a dozen languages. He had a way with women and a neat taste.

He drew rein so suddenly that his tired mount fell back on its haunches, and stopped the procession amid a clatter of iron and brass, an accompaniment of deep-chested curses, and a great stirring of dust-clouds. The smirking neighbors of Vulfrand and Ludwige, Bertille’s parents, pursed their lips disdainfully as they saw the warrior, suddenly forgetful of king, council, pomp, and circumstance, gazing up at the vision in the window. Amalon saw a face delicate as the ivory statues that wandering peddlers brought to his castle gate from the littoral of Old Greece, an aureole of burning gold where the sun twinkled in her hair, a misty sweep of intangible whiteness where her soft robe looped down from her shoulders in the Roman fashion, a lure of unspoiled loveliness in her wide-open blue eyes.

The neighbors sneered; the men at arms swore; the horses reared and plunged, anxious to be off again. But Amalon saw only his vision. The first noise of the halt became a din. But Bertille did not hear. She was still gazing into the sun-filled street where the calque of Gontran, easily visible above the heads of his body-guard, was moving onward.

Amalon’s lapse was momentary, for he was not the sort to let any one woman turn his head. One lingering scrutiny and he settled back into the saddle, shouted a command and was away at a trot to fill the gap in the column.

The great council of Gontran lasted two weeks. There was not much time in those days for religious observances. Almost any day, the king well knew, he would be forced to gird himself for a new war with or against his royal brothers. But just now there was no war on the family calendar. There was opportunity to convene the church dignitaries, and no particular reason for curtailing their discussions.

Amalon, however, suddenly lost interest in the council and its impressive ceremonials. It irked him to hear a gray-beard tell him things about his soul.

He journeyed one day from the Chapel of St. Marcel to the home of Vulfrand the armorer, and set about making himself agreeable.

That was before the days of the iron-bound feudalism that grew out of the Frankish ideas of service. The people, only partially emerged from the savagery that the incoming Burgundians had blended with the effete civilization of dying Rome, made slight distinctions in the classes. Chiefs were chiefs. Men-at-arms were potential chiefs. Free men were men-at-arms. And slaves were slaves. Save for the wearers of the yoke there were no barriers against inter-course with the great. It required no sacrifice of aristocratic ideals for Amalon to visit the home of Vulfrand, if Amalon may be said to have any such ideals, and it implied no particular honor to the house. Yet Vulfrand could not but feel honored.

He welcomed a chance to tell of his own service afield with Gondebaud when Burgundy had held its own in the wars with the Franks, and was not sufficiently keen an analyst to discover the cause of the cavalier’s affability.

Bertille, however, knew that it was not to hear of the great King Gondebaud that Amalon had come from the Chapel of St. Marcel. She remembered his smile on the day of the great procession, and she was afraid. She avoided the visitor until her rudeness attracted the attention of even the slow-witted Vulfrand. He spoke to her about it before Amalon.

“My guest is honored in my house,” he declared. “He stands in my place before you. Any more of your tantrums and I ’11 send you out to work in the fields as your great-grandmother did.”

“There are worse things than working in the fields,” re-plied Bertille with a little more fire than might have been suspected in so demure a person. “One does not have to study the beasts that one meets there. I should know with-out inquiry that the horse will always be a horse, the cow always a cow, and, saving the presence of your honored guest, the pig always a pig.”

Vulfrand, bewailing the ways of modern children, escorted her from the room by the hair of the head and chastised her audibly. Bertille sobbingly protested that she would drown herself in a well before she would allow the significant smirks of Amalon to pass unnoticed. But, for all that, a spanking with the flat side of a short scab-bard was a punishment to be reckoned with, and for the next two days she demonstrated her dislike for the warrior .of Champagne in silence.

So Amalon continued to cast amorous eyes at Bertille and laughed when her trembling lips whitened in angry scorn of him.

One night, as Bertille stepped through the garden on her return from vespers, six stalwarts twisted a woolen cloak about her head and bound her hand and foot.

Day was dawning when Bertille recovered consciousness and found herself traveling over an unfamiliar road through a tunnel of greenery. Weeds were sprouting from cracks in the surface of the Gallo-Roman highway. Startled redbirds flew screeching from the shrubbery before them. Mosses hung from the fir-trees, and wild flowers of carmine, purple, and gold bloomed in untrodden profusion along the edges of the paving. Even to Bertille, used as she was to the forests, the ride was a pageant of desolation. Civilization had gone. Civilization had not yet come. The old order was changing, but progress was not yet apparent.

Populations had been lessened by continuous wars. Conservation of human life was a subject that had not yet attracted much attention from the makers of the Burgundian laws. The works that the Romans had constructed were going the way of all brick and mortar, and the genius of the hordes that had engulfed the empire was not yet finding its expression. Farms had lain fallow, and forests had encroached upon the land. The hard roads had become green-white streaks through a blue-green jungle.

Through such scenes as this they passed northward for two days until they came at length to the Champagne country, where the population was more dense and the landscape less depressing. The cart was brought to a halt before the outer wall of a stronghold.

Bertille’s eyes opened wide. She had never seen a place of this sort. The wall was unlike the Roman remains in Burgundy. It was built almost entirely of stout oak timbers, buttressed at the bottom with stone and bound at the top with iron. A moat surrounded it, a canal fed by the waters of the Marne—and a small pont-levis gave access to the gate.

The pennon of Amalon fluttered over the wall. Gaunt spearmen and archers in steel-spangled jerkins, patrolling the top of the stockade, peered down quizzically upon the visitors. One of the warriors of the escort rode forward and sounded a blast on the ram’s horn beside the gate. There was a scraping of wood as the bars were swung over and the hinged barrier swung outward.

Evidently advance notice of the coming of the cart and its attendants had been brought to the chateau by courier, for they were not challenged nor questioned. Without waiting even to give the password, the horsemen spurred forward, and Bertille found herself inside the stronghold. The roadway lay across a second moat to the iron-studded door of a central tower, which, like the protecting cincture, was fashioned almost entirely of wood. Green skins covered all projections and most of the upright area—a simple if somewhat odorous protection against the firebrands of an enemy. The tower was round and bulged at the top, where an unroofed platform provided walking-space for watchers of the protecting garrison.

Bertille was taken from the cart and carried half-conscious into the keep.

On the second floor the men-at-arms threw her into a chair before the fireplace and turned her over to the attention of some stolid females of Amalon’s household. There was a bit of savage splendor in this great hall. The ceiling was high enough to be lost in dim shadow. Beneath it a forest of timbering, symmetrical and ingenious, had a beauty of its own, similar, indeed, to the lacy intertwining of stone vaults in the Chapel of St. Marcel. Oak panels crudely carved and blackened with smoke covered the walls. The fireplace was an immense thing of rough stone, vast as a whole room might be in a Burgundian house, and of importance to the Salle des Chevaliers even when no fire might be needed because of the forceful draft with which it cooled the great hall. Silken banners from India, wrought silver ornaments that had belonged to enemies long forgotten, and brass battle-gear of a dozen varieties gave color to the dark panels. On the wide oaken beam that served as a mantel-piece, a flame floated on a pool of oil in a polished copper bowl.

There was no escaping. A sentry with a bludgeon stood at the door. One of the guardian hags sat on the wide sill of the curtainless window. Bertille wept silently for a while and then fell asleep.

She wakened to find Amalon bending over her. The dust of the long journey was on his armoring, and his face was drawn with fatigue. But he was smiling with satisfaction when she opened her eyes.

Night had fallen while Bertille slept. A dozen smoking torches lit the hall. A dozen men-at-arms ranged across the end of the room nearest the door, their rusted accoutrements asparkle in the flickering light—a picture of power and of a brutal bondage.

But Bertille betrayed no emotion when she arose, a forlorn little figure, before these towering soldiers. She smoothed out her rumpled white garment and adjusted the silver loop about her golden hair, scarcely looking at her amorous captor. Then she walked to the end of the fire-place and leaned against it, gazing at Amalon with unspoken hatred.

“If you marry me here and now,” she told him slowly, “I shall make you a faithful wife, although I despise you beyond all the words of Latin, Goth, Burgundian, or Frank. But I will not be your mistress.”

Amalon laughed, and his guffaw was echoed by the hairy savages at the door.

“But I cannot marry you, my pretty maid,” he declared, unwittingly paraphrasing a bit of literature as yet unborn. “I have a wife somewhere—in Aquitaine, I think, or is it Septimania—and the monks hereabouts know of it. They would have a delicacy about giving me a second wife, even had I the desire to repeat the experiment of matrimony, which I have not. Wives, my good woman, are a nuisance to a man of my talent.”

And, with much applause from the soldiery, he seized Bertille about the waist.

Just what happened then was never made clear even by the men-at-arms, whose accounts formed the basis of the romance that afterward figured largely in the crude literature of the langue d’o’il.

Somehow—perhaps by accident, perhaps by calculated strategy—Bertille’s thin little hand had come in contact with the handle of a battle-ax that hung by the fireplace. Instantly she lifted it from its hook.

With one supreme effort, she broke from Amalon’s arms and fell against the wall with a force that racked her body and dimmed her sight. She would have been lost then had not the weight of Amalon’s iron coat unbalanced him in his sudden pursuit. He fell headlong at her feet.

As he rose she swung the ax.

The heavy blade missed his head and struck him on the shoulder near the neck, cleaving through the iron disks of his armor with deadly ease. He sank to the floor again with the death-rattle in his throat.

In Chalon the disappearance of Bertille of the Golden Hair and Amalon of Champagne was soon a favorite topic of popular gossip.

The less lovely women of the neighborhood recounted with embellishments the story of King Gontran’s procession and of Amalon’s spectacular salute to the fair Bertille. Singularly few of them condemned the girl for having eloped with the visiting cavalier. And singularly few were minded to compliment Amalon on his taste.

Presently Vulfrand came to believe that he had been deceived by his daughter’s show of animosity toward the distinguished guest, that her hostility had been merely a mask behind which might be plotted illicit trysts and philanderings innumerable and unspeakable. In vain Ludwige argued with him, failing probably because she herself protested her daughter’s innocence only half-heartedly. The evidence was too conclusive.

“She is no daughter of mine,” Vulfrand declared. “As a Christian virgin she was an ornament to our house. As a Frankish concubine she is a disgrace to her religion and her blood, and should be killed were she worth that much trouble. She has made a fine show of saintliness only to give herself to the first man who asks her to run away with him. And she has made me ridiculous in the eyes of my neighbors who respected me.”

Obviously the last charge of the indictment was the most serious. Even Ludwige could offer no defense against it.

So the affair continued to be a bit of spicy scandal for dooryard discussion until the thirteenth day of the great council. King Gontran, who had been too much occupied with ecclesiastical questions to concern himself about the unexplained disappearance of Amalon, had heard nothing of the gossip, although, because of the man’s importance, he might have been interested in it. The conclave was proceeding with much ceremonial and learned debate when suddenly, at the rear of the Chapel of St. Marcel, there arose an infernal clatter.

There came the sounds of arms hastily dragged over the tiles and a subdued but earnest argument among the sentries. Then, amid imprecations that arose on all sides despite the holiness of the place, a woman, ragged, muddy, and terror-stricken, darted between the crossed lances of two soldiers and ran toward the altar of Our Lady.

Shocked surprise held back the sentries. The learned doctors paused in the midst of their debate. King Gontran himself arose from his chair in the sanctuary and gazed on the scene, unable to voice a command. The girl seemed to be insensible to the tumult about her. She staggered with arms outstretched to the altar and fell at Mary’s feet.

Through the nave of the church echoed the girl’s frightened voice in a prayer, awe-inspiring for its very sincerity:

“Mother of Christ, it was to keep me worthy of thee !”

Bishops, nobles, and king felt somehow that they had been eavesdropping upon a conversation with the Mother of God in person. . . . Bertille, aureoled in a sudden burst of golden sunlight, lost consciousness on the altar steps.

She was revived and brought before Gontran.

“I was kidnapped by Amalon the Frank,” she told him simply. “I protected myself.” She opened her cloak, and the king gasped, warrior that he was, to see the red stain upon her trembling bosom. “I killed him. I struck him down with his own battle-ax. God have mercy on his soul !

“His servants let me pass, and I walked back to Chalon to throw myself at Mary’s feet and explain to her why I did it.”

She hung her head like a prisoner awaiting sentence and so failed to see the smile that lighted Gontran’s hard old face.

The king suddenly took the girl by the arm and drew her to a seat beside him.

“My child,” he said. “You are a heroine. You, a slip of a girl, have vanquished the most skilled swordsman in the West. Your modesty and courage rank you with Judith. This night you will be cared for by the ladies of my house, and in the morning you will return here for a full disposition of your case.”

There is a bit of the dramatic in the denouement of this story. Messengers of the king spread broadcast through Chalon the report that on the morrow King Gontran was to hold a public ceremonial in honor of the womanhood of Burgundy . . . an unprecedented procedure, indeed, in conquered Gaul.

Ludwige and Vulfrand passed a sleepless night pondering upon the tragic fate of Bertille. Honor to the women of Burgundy was a sore reminder of her own dishonor. . . . And their house was lonely. They had not realized it before. . . .

They went to the square before the Chapel of St. Marcel the next morning solely to stop the tongues of the gossips who would have found cause for conversation had they remained at home. And they made a brave show when the king strode out to the chapel steps, leading a trembling little veiled figure by the hand.

“My people,” announced Gontran without preliminary. “I have called you together to do honor to Burgundy’s greatest heroine. She has placed upon virtue a value higher than the price of life itself, and I confer upon her a token of the realm’s lasting regard : three golden crowns—the first for beauty, the second for courage, the third for chastity. They should always be worn together.”

One after another he set the circlets upon her brow, while the great throng stood silent. Then he drew back her veil. . . .