France – Jura Mountains

It is to be expected that the Jura Mountains should be inhabited by fairies. There must be pure spirits where the mountains touch the sky. That the fairies should have had a part in Burgundian history is logical, once one is prepared to admit their existence. The numerous wars that flowed down out of the high Alps must have affected them, and we have it on very good authority that they affected the wars.

Climatic conditions and scenic arrangements should be good if one is to converse with the fairies, and they are seldom otherwise on top of the plateau between the Doubs and the Loue. The perspective cannot be explained, but the sense of height is unmistakable. Perhaps the whispering bells from the valleys, the sounds of wagons on the roads far below the fringe of forests at the rim, indicating distances that the eye might not detect, trick the senses. One seems to be in a new world, a world in which fairies are not at all out of place. . . .

A fine rain was beading the window-panes and spattering in the fireplace. A wind was sweeping across the plateau from the Alps, moaning in the pines and hooting down the chimney. Madame stood at the window with a candle in her hand.

For ten minutes she had been standing so, gazing out over the glistening road into the blue haze that marked the edge of the table-land. The clock ticked on, and the cuckoo stuck his head out to announce eight o’clock. Madame did not move. Her tense expression was a bit disconcerting. So many things might be expected to happen “on a night like this” on the top of the world.

Presently she sighed and turned away from the window. The candle-flare intensified a series of set wrinkles about her mouth and brought out the restlessness of her eyes.

“They do not walk to-night, monsieur,” she said. “Always it is on a rainy night that one may expect them. But to-night over across the churchyard there is no sign of them. You may see for yourself.”

“What may I see?” I inquired.

“The ghosts of the living and the dead,” she replied cryptically as she bent down to stir the fire under the pot-au-feu. “I have seen them often. One may expect them to appear when a great injustice is about to be done. In many parts of the Jura they appear, and I myself have seen them on this plateau, walking in that street out there.

“They will never harm the good and the just. But they are very terrifying, just the same. It is such a novelty to see corpses wandering about in the wet just like live people.”

Eventually madame permitted herself to be convinced that I had never heard of “the ghosts of the living and the dead.”

“Ah, it is a long and interesting story, monsieur,” she said. “I had it of my grandfather, who used to live at Berne and later moved to Besancon when the watch-factory was built there. I shall tell it to you just as he told it to me.

“In the old days when the Franche-Comte was in-dependent, there lived in the Jura the Count Landolph, a seigneur of the great house of Burgundy. He was a grasping, miserly sort of person, whose people had little to eat because of his rentals. Everybody hated him.

“He had a castle somewhere in this neighborhood—some say at Mouthier, some say at Lausanne in Switzerland, but after all that makes no great difference.

“At the same time there was an abbey north of here, some say in Besancon, some say in Nancy. Charles the Good was abbot. I think he is a saint now. The Bon Dieu could get no better servant. Charles was as well liked as Landolph was hated, which is not remarkable. It would be the same to-day if they were both alive.

“Landolph had a brother; Robert was his name. He owned much of the land in here, perhaps this very land on which our house is built. He was very rich, almost as rich as the Count Landolph. But he never caused any trouble and was neither loved nor hated.

“When he was about to die, Robert thought about the life that he had lived and the evils that his family had committed, and he set about making his peace with God. Shortly before he breathed his last—some say it was at Pontarlier, others say Geneva—he sent for the Abbot Charles the Good. Charles came afoot over the mountains and administered the last sacraments to him.

“I haven’t lived the way I should have lived, Robert told Charles. It is not right that my people should suffer through my death. They have suffered enough during my life. So I shall deed to your abbey and the glory of St. Benedict all of my lands and chattels.’ And they sent for a legal person to make out the will in proper form. But before all that could be done Robert died.

“Landolph immediately seized the estate. He was a bad man, that Landolph. He made a great show of being in his rights in the affair. He set up a court in his palace and invited in the country-side to list any and all complaints. Charles the Good took him at his word, journeyed to the castle, and demanded his lands.

“Landolph laughed at him, monsieur. He laughed at that holy man.

“He said to him : `If my brother gave you that land you should have something to show for it. Unless you can bring him here to me, to tell me in person about this transfer, I shall keep the land!’

“Can you imagine that, monsieur, asking the good abbot to bring a dead man out of his grave to testify? Who ever heard of equal insolence!

“But the good abbot had right on his side, and after all that is everything.

“You will be surprised to hear what happened. The Abbot Charles walked through the snow over the mountains to Robert’s grave near Sion—or was it Chillon?—no matter.

“And he stood by the side of the grave and he called out :

“Robert, in the name of God I command you to come out of your grave to right the wrong that your brother would do!’

“And Robert heard him. Down there in his coffin at the bottom of that frozen grave, monsieur, Robert heard him. He pushed against the top of the box and forced open the grave, and he stepped out before the good Charles in his rotting grave-clothes, a terrible sight, a corpse still, although the spirit had come back for a time.

“Then they walked back over the snow to Landolph’s castle, the dead man following the living. It was a fearful thing. People who saw that corpse walking on and on at the saint’s command fell down in the snow to pray for their own souls. Few who saw that spectacle ever forgot it.

“They came at length to Landolph’s castle, where the sentries had been warned to bar the gate against Charles.

“But at the sight of Robert’s corpse they forgot their orders and fled. And so Charles led the way unmolested into the count’s audience-chamber.

“All the warriors and women in that great hall fell back before them, monsieur. Charles and Robert walked right up to the dais where sat Landolph and his countess. The count was unable to speak for fear as his dead brother opened his blue lips and spoke to him.

I have been forced to come out of my grave to prevent an injustice, he said. In dying I left all my lands to this holy man. My estates must be restored to him in accordance with my will. For the next time I leave my grave I shall take you back to it with me.

“Landolph could scarcely find voice to reply. Then he said in a whisper:

“The lands are yours, Abbot Charles. God has shown His will. But take this terrible thing away from me. Don’t let him look at me with his empty eyes.”

“So Charles took Robert back to his grave and saw him laid once more in his coffin. Charles died forty years later after doing much for his people. Landolph, too, reformed as well as one could expect so hardened a character to reform.

“But since the death of Charles a number of very peculiar things have happened. Whenever a great injustice is about to be committed Charles leaves his grave and calls up the ghost of Robert to accompany him on a mission of warning. They walk across the hills as they walked that other winter night, except that this time they are both ghosts; and, as is natural, considering their previous relationship, one of these ghosts is the ghost of a live man, while the other is the ghost of a corpse.

“If one gets a close look at them, he can see the difference. Charles spirit is less transparent than that of Robert who died twice. I never got near enough to see for myself, but I have it on the authority of those who have. There are no other such ghosts in all the world.”

Ghosts of varying density are not the only strange in-habitants of the Jura. It seems to be characteristic of mountains that they acquire a population which could not exist in flat spaces. Ghosts one may find anywhere. Gnomes and dwarfs seem to confine their tenancy exclusively to forests, but as one climbs the peaks he finds the fairies. The fairy of the Jura is a character of sufficient note to be mentioned in most of the standard works on mythology. She is a water-nymph, a stranded mermaid undergoing punishment for some unmentioned sin, a sprite who has the profound sympathy of all her neighbors. In a way her history is like that of the beautiful Melusine much so that some commentators have suggested that she is merely a local adaptation of the Lady of Lusignan—and like Melusine she continues to exercise an influence over the welfare of the country in which she is imprisoned.

Madame told me about her on the evening after the storm as we sat on the old bench before the door, watching the big cream-and-brown cattle plodding down the street to the public troughs with the children of the town in chattering force behind them. Over toward Switzerland the mountains were white puffballs on a blue ground.

“Monsieur has heard of the fairy of the Jura?” she asked suddenly.

I shook my head.

“I never see the children that I don’t think of her,” she said. “My father told it to me, and I told it to my fine sons in there by the fire. They loved the story. I used to tell it to them over and over again. . . . I had hoped that I might live to tell stories to their children. And now I have no sons, monsieur. All are dead. . . . Chemin des Dames. . . . Pont-a-Mousson. . . .”

She wiped her dim old eyes with a corner of her immaculate apron, then straightened proudly.

“Pardon, monsieur,” she said. “I am an old woman, and I sometimes forget that I am a Frenchwoman. I remember only that they were my sons. . . .

“The fairy, monsieur, I shall tell you of her. She was Ysabeau, a mermaid who came up to these mountains through a spring in search of a soul. There were lost souls a-plenty in the mountains in those days, monsieur. And eventually she found one. It was a very sad thing, too, I think. She jumped at the first chance that offered and got a soul that didn’t fit. . . . The soul that she found belonged to the wicked duchess of Grenoble, and the mermaid was just a simple little thing—pretty enough but like the dear little girls in our own day, unsuited to any life but that in which they have been brought up.

“While she was just a little fairy she wasn’t troubled by any ambitions. She was happy swimming around in her fountain. Not a care in the world to trouble her. But after she became a mortal like the rest of us she began to feel uncomfortable. Nothing ever was right. Nothing ever was good enough for her. . Oh, that ‘s an old, old story, monsieur.

“Then one day she met a count who fell in love with her. They were married.

“But the marriage wasn’t happy. Such matches never are. They quarreled. She ran away, and in a moment of thoughtlessness went back to her fountain to seek the aid of the fairies. They gave her the appearance of a mermaid once more, but they couldn’t take away her soul. That was where the trouble came.

“She went into the grotto where her fountain was and attempted to get into the water so that she might swim back to the sea. But the witches who guarded the spring would not let any one with a human soul pass through their territory. They changed her into a serpent and imprisoned her in the grotto.

“You may have heard of Charles the Bold, monsieur. He was a great man who at one time owned most of the land hereabouts. I have heard the school teacher say that he was a greater man than the king of France. But you understand all of that was very long ago, even before my grandmother’s time.

“Charles was not like the other men in the high places at that time, monsieur. At heart he was very good. He would have nothing to do with women, although they ran after him continually.

“One day, when he was hunting in the Jura Mountains, a storm overtook him, and he entered a cave. And there, chained to a rock, just as the witches had left her, was Ysabeau, human still, although a serpent in everything but her borrowed soul. She recognized Charles and spoke to him. You may imagine his surprise at that.

“She said to him:

“I am Ysabeau, Countess of Annecy, deprived of my body and my possessions by enchantment. I must remain here until a chaste man bold enough to kiss me three times, shall come to my rescue.”

“This Charles of whom I speak, monsieur, was really chaste, as I have told you, and he did not lack anything in the way of boldness.

“Well,’ he said, women mean nothing to me, but I am an enemy of all wizards. They usually work against me.’

“So he stooped over, monsieur, and he kissed that horrible serpent full in the mouth. Mon Dieu! It makes me sick to think of it. And it was no easy task, even for him. When he felt that cold kiss on his lips he turned cold all over and was near to fainting.

“But he tried once more, choking back his disgust all the while. And the fairy might have been liberated then had she trusted in his strength. But she saw him turn white and tremble and feared that his nausea would overcome him; so she pressed forward eagerly and twined her slimy body about him to force the third embrace. That was too much even for Charles the Bold. He freed himself from her awful grasp and sprang out of the cave.

“Years afterward he repented this act of cowardice and attempted to find the cave again. But the rocks seemed to have grown together over the entrance to the grotto. For Charles was no longer the innocent boy. He had married and he had seen the world and his kiss had lost its power.

“I used to like to believe, monsieur, that there really was such a fairy and that one of my boys would find her and rescue her. It made me happy when they would go away arm in arm to find the grotto where she was imprisoned. I am an old woman and should have better sense, but it makes me happy still to think of it. I cannot explain it.”

But I thought I could find the explanation. The fairy-story of Ysabeau and her sad plight was as true as a mother’s hopes and a mother’s love. Ysabeau, imprisoned in the rock, was nothing. Madame would not have cared had she stayed there for the rest of eternity. The four sons proclaiming their innocence by setting out in search for her were Galahads; and that was everything.

The “dissolute France” that the novelists have described so meticulously for us is full of surprises like that. Here in a hinterland mountain village were ideals that our Puri-tan civilization had forgotten. Here in an unlettered peas-ant woman were the impulses that had given France a Joan of Arc. Here, amid poor little farms and decaying little houses, a quaint bit of chivalry, lingering centuries after its time, was a mother’s chief consolation for the loss of her warrior sons.