It is a rocky path that takes one to Crussol, a winding course about dark igneous masses that peep through screens of foliage. Shadows are purple under the hazel-bushes. Sunlight is blinding where it falls across the yellow road. The sky is the clear turquoise blue of the Midi. It is an aimless road that shows no regard for time in its meanderings about vineyards, dry watercourses, or rocky upheavals. Much of it is arched with shrubbery, through which the valley of the Rhone is glimpsed only in fleeting pictures, but presently it takes a rollicking turn and steps out under the open sky. There is an eye-disturbing sweep of the landscape upward and away, a rush of green and purple and yellow and red to a point. And, dominating the point, rise the white ruins of the old castle.
Natives hereabouts will tell you that the foundations on which the shattered arches still keep their crumbling bases were in the ground before Hercules set his hand to the building of Lyon, and there is the stability of Roman masonry in the sturdy facade that casts its long, grim shadow toward the river.
Popular legend names the prehistoric founder of the chateau as the giant Crussolis. This belief was based upon the finding of a quantity of immense bones in what was formerly the courtyard of the castle. Archeologists always ready to spoil a good story, announced that the skeleton had once been the property of an elephant. According to their way of looking at the question, this should have ended for ever the tales of Crussolis, but science failed to carry its point. Not only was the discredited giant allowed to retain his position of honor in the folk-lore of Ardeche, but the theory of the elephant bones was made the central plot of a new romance. The people of the valley found it no trick at all to believe firmly in a sort of partnership between Crussolis and the elephant in the ownership of the bones.
The known history of the peak and its chateau opens in the records of the Bastet family of Languedoc. In 1110 Geraud Bastet bought some property in the Vivarais near St.-Wray. On the bald escarpment that was quite the same then as it is to-day he found substantial parts of the buildings that had stood there previously and used them as a nucleus for his castle. Before his death he had constructed a stronghold that dominated the entire country-side and extended an influence far into Languedoc. With a few additions of towers and fortifications the chateau remained unchanged until the day of its downfall.
The successors of Geraud were important figures in many families. Those who retained title as barons of Crussol later intermarried with the d’Uzes line and became dukes of that house. This branch was to the forefront in all of the religious and civil wars of the Midi. Louis of Crussol, Seneschal of Poitiers, was chief of artillery under Louis XI, and it is said that his guns were the most handsomely en-graved in all the world. He died in 14.73, passing the family fame to his son Jacques, who died in 1525, and his grandson Charles, who died in 1546, grand quartermasters of France.
Antoine, son of Charles, was one of the great military factors in the religious troubles that beset the reign of Charles IX. Although he was avowedly a Protestant, he was appointed commissioner in Languedoc by Catherine de Medici, to calm the uprising that threatened there. He carried out his mission zealously and was received as governor of the south at the convention of the Protestant estates in 1562. He was made a peer of France in 1572 and died a year late without posterity.
His brother Jacques, who succeeded him, was the recognized leader of the Huguenots of lower Languedoc and occupied twenty years of his life in one religious campaign or another. It was during these wars that Crussol was battered and burned.
A small boy and a pet goat were playing about the ruins of Crussol when I reached them. Small boys and pet goats seem to be as much a part of French ruins as the ghosts that moan through the empty halls at night or the pines that take root in the high crannies. The boys have learned through some unaccountable channel that guides, any class of guides, are sometimes remunerated with actual francs. The goats come along to act as scenery.
This boy’s name was Pedro Lacuno and he came from Languedoc. His father was a vintner who had an establishment in Vezelay. The family had come only recently from Languedoc, and the quaint accents of the dialect had not yet been schooled out of his speech. But he possessed one advantage that most guides lack : he was highly interested in the old castle and not old enough to conceal his enthusiasm.
“I just wander around here looking for the hole through which the Golden Knight argued with the devil about his soul,” he announced in answer to my question. “This is the spot that my grandfather described to me when we lived in Narbonne.”
Theologians, and, for that matter, many who are not theologians, probably will be surprised to learn that the only authentic entrance to hell is under the Horns of Crussol. But there it is. The maturity of thirteen years is quick to analyze these reports and sift the truth from rumor.
“Aren’t you afraid to walk alone so close to the entrance to hell?” I asked Pedro. “The devil would have an easy chance to step out and capture you.”
He looked at me pityingly.
“The devil is dead,” he announced with a dogmatic air no less startling than the subject-matter of his pronouncement. “Anybody ought to know that Crowbar of the Mighty Arm killed him when he went down into hell. And, anyway, the Knight of the Golden Armor walks these hills. The devil would n’t have any chance against him.”
I felt very foolish, of course, at not having thought of so obvious an explanation; but, at the risk of incurring the further displeasure of my young guide, I suggested that he refresh my memory on the subject. So we sat in the shadows of the white towers, looking down across the skeleton city that had been the citadel of Crussol to the valley of the Rhone, where red poppies and green grasses stirred in the wind to make a great field of changeable silk. In such a setting it was not difficult to envision the coming of the Golden Knight.
The chronicles of the house of Crussol make no mention of it; but at one time, soon after it had been completely fortified, the castle began to be a rendezvous for malign spirits. From all parts of Provence and Languedoc and Brittany and Normandy, and even far-off Flanders, these imps came in answer to the call of the devil, who resented the building of so large a structure over his private entrance to the infernal domains.
The Golden Knight is a figure who seems to have stepped bodily out of other folk-tales that are to be found in all corners of Europe. There is a faint resemblance between him and Nerte, Mistral’s heroine of Avignon, whose father sold her to the devil in exchange for worldly wealth.
That is what happened to Henry, the Golden Knight. One of the twelfth-century barons of Crussol sold him in exchange for a victory over a neighboring count.
It seems to have been the fate of legendary heroes of the Middle Ages that they lacked the gift of free will and self-determination that was so lavishly accorded their unregenerate relatives. Henry, who was always a pious youth, discovered one day that he had been placed on the market. He promptly posted a notice that he would not be responsible for any debts contracted by persons other than himself, and set out upon a private crusade.
He had many knightly adventures, killed a dragon, rescued a maidenthe daughter of the king of Mauretania, by the wayacquired a treasure, and bought himself a suit of golden armor. He might have married the girl then and there, but he had no desire to link her fate with that of a soulless corporation. So he left her to wait for him and went on with his quest.
On the red sands of Syria fortune favored him. He found a wizard brewing a broth of serpent’s tongues and similarly potent titbits over a fire of teak-wood. He slew the wizard just on general principles. Immediately there came a clap of thunder, the desert grew dark, and a sad-faced woman in flowing robes stood before him.
“I wish to thank you, young man,” she said. “I am the devil’s wife. By some foul means this unspeakable wizard discovered the incantation that I am forced to answer. For months I have had neither sleep nor rest. Every time I dozed off I was forced to come up here and answer his silly questions. Now that he is dead, I may have some peace.”
Henry was little inclined to talk to her, but she was a pleasant enough sort of person. She told him that she had divorced the devil some years ago and was conducting a private business in plain and fancy evil in the Orient. Out of gratitude she gave him a small box that she had stolen from her husband.
“There is your soul,” she said. “A very good soul it is, too, although by no means as valuable as my blockheaded spouse seems to think. I am sorry I can’t give you the key to the box. That ‘s somewhere about Crussol. In my haste in packing I neglected to take it.
“You go back to Provence; take with you the box and seven horseshoe nails which I shall give you. . . . They are nails from the shoes of Bayard, the flying horse, and the devil would prize them highly for his collection of curios. You can drive a bargain with him and exchange them for the key.”
So Henry complied. He rode straight through Provence to Crussol, waited until midnight in the full of the moon, and went out to meet the familiar demon of the premises.
“I am very much interested in your proposition,” the devil declared. “I say, let ‘s go down to my house and finish the bargain.”
“No,” said Henry, “I am constitutionally opposed to going to hell, even temporarily, and there is a certain unjust suspicion on the part of most folks that visits to your place of business are permanent and unpleasant. You get the key, and I shall stay here and wait for you.”
“I know a simpler way,” said the devil. “I shall go down and get the key. You stand at the rim of the well. When I count three, you throw down the nails, and I shall throw up the key.” And, being of an unspoiled, unsuspicious nature, the youthful knight agreed.
The devil dropped into the well and, after a brief delay, appeared with a red light about a mile below the surface. He counted three as agreed and threw the key without waiting for Henry to drop the treasured nails. The Knight of the Golden Armor was astounded to see that the devil was so much a man of his word. But, of course, a bargain with the devil, even for so splendid a prize as a soul, would have been all wrong. So the knight caught the key and immediately hurled the coveted nails into the Chapel of Crussol, a spot where the devil might not enter.
He was much pleased with his accomplishment. He had outwitted the devil and saved his soul, and the world was going well. Then he sat down in the moonlight to unlock the casket and restore his soul to its natural habitat.
He made an unpleasant discovery. The key didn’t fit.
“What ‘s this?” he demanded, leaning over the parapet of the well. “This is n’t the right key.”
“It ‘s the key to my wife’s trunk,” replied Satan. “She took the trunk away with her when she left our home, so the key isn’t worth anything to me. If you are so thick with her you might trade it for something else. Now, if you were to bring me those nails.
They have been haggling about it ever since, the Knight of the Golden Armor and the devil. The knight, being detached from his soul, cannot yield up the ghost. Yet he cannot consort with mortals because his soul cannot enter into his mortal body. So he wanders about Provence and Languedoc, still hoping to rescue the key to his captive spirit and combating evil wherever he finds it.
“I should like to see him,” said the boy when he had finished his story. “I know where there is a good locksmith in St.-Wray, and I am certain that he could open this box without any trouble.”
And Pedro Lacuno probably is still sitting in the Cornes de Crussol, unless his mother’s patience has become exhausted, keeping his strange vigil as a locksmith’s business agent, singing a message of hope to the Chevalier d’Or, who never answers.