France – La Pierre-Lys

The valley had widened out a little as we reached Quillan, yet the mountains stood around it like sentinels, ready to block the way of any foe trying to find a passage from the south.

There is a delightful homely inn at Quillan called, I think, the ” Verdier,” where we lunched together with an old lady, who was much perturbed by ” un courant d’air,” of which no one could find the source. I asked her about the road of Pierre-Lys, but she only remembered that, whether you were going up, or whether you were going down, there was a dreadful draught, and I was to be sure and put up the hood and the wind-screen, or I should catch bronchitis.

It was Monsieur le Maire, who was filling in the intervals of business with a friendly game of dominoes, who finally told me the story of Felix Armand, the Priest Roadmaker of Quillan. As we made our way afterwards up the magnificent defile of La Pierre-Lys, I thought of the bellringer’s son, how he used to come and sit for long hours, gazing up the gorge, wondering how he should find the means of making that road, which was to bring health and prosperity into the wretched village of Saint-Martin-en-Lys, lying hidden in its depths. His Bishop finally drove him to it by naming him Cure of the inaccessible and forsaken parish.

” Well, my dear Cure,” he said one day, when Armand had come to Alet on the occasion of an ecclesiastical conference, ” and how are your new parishioners getting on? ”

” Very badly, Monseigneur, and you know it. Saint-Martin is the most miserable parish in your diocese.”

” Ah well, and what can one do to help them? ”

” Give them a road, Monseigneur, a good road.”

” But, my dear Cure, I understand that ,such a road would be impracticable. In any case the cost would be enormous.”

” I will manage it if any one will give me a few thousand francs,” cried the young priest eagerly; ” at all events I will begin it, and others can then finish.”

So from his pocket the Bishop took his purse.

” I should like to help you in such a work,” he said; ” come, hold out your hand.” A louis d’or, a second, a third, a fourth! ” Well,” said the Bishop, ” is that enough for the present? ”

” Go on, Monseigneur, as you have begun,” and the gold kept dropping out, for this was just before the Revolution, and Bishops were not so poor as they are now.

Others helped the good Cure, for wherever he went he made his wants known; at Quillan, Axat, Limoux, at the doors of castles and monasteries he knocked, and wherever he asked, his zeal gained friends for his poor people of Saint-Martin. Even those who could not help with money he pressed into the service, and so, by little and little, the road grew. It was Monsieur le Cure himself who marked it out, hanging like a spider from the end of a rope over the awful precipices of the Pierre-Lys. After five years incessant toil the workmen reached the huge mass of rock which blocks the gorge near Belvianes. Alas and alas for the road! But even here the heroic priest was not discouraged. ” It is just at the time of difficulty that God helps us most! ” he cried, and calling together all the population of Saint-Martin, young and old, he led them singing, the cross at their head, to Le Roc Maudet, called ever since, ” Le Trou du Cure.” In stirring words he explained how the very life of themselves and their children depended on this road being finished, then, himself seizing a pick, set vigorously to work. After that it was not long before the rock was conquered, and ” the May sunshine of 1781 streamed through into a gorge which had remained closed to it since the foundation of the world.”

But it was still many years before the road was finished. In 1793 the good priest was driven from his home by the Revolution, and followed his Bishop to Spain. But his exile was a pain and a grief to him; and when, a year or so later, one of his favourite workmen brought a letter, covered with signatures and the humble crosses of those who could not write, begging him to return, he set off gladly and thankfully to take up his interrupted labour. All through the days of the Directoire he remained at Saint-Martin. Even the Revolutionary authorities were in league with his flock, giving them timely notice when they were obliged to pay one of their inquisitorial visits; so that the proscribed but beloved outcast had plenty of time to escape to a grotto, high among the rocks opposite the old monastery. There we may be sure he was well looked after, and on Sunday his parishioners would steal forth in little groups of two and three, and find their way to the ruined chapel of Saint-Michel, which lay close by his hiding-place. And here, on an altar built out of fallen stones, the Cure would say Mass, and administer the Sacrament, after the manner of the early persecuted Fathers of the Christian Church.

When the Terror was over, he came out of his hiding-place, and quietly set to work once more at his road.

And when all was nearly complete, Bonaparte heard of the affair. Nothing could have touched the heart of the great Maker of Roads like the work of this humble priest. ” A pity the man should be a priest,” he exclaimed. ” I would have made him a General of my Army.”

So the good Cure found himself famous, and with means enough to complete his gigantic task. And when it was done, when the Bishop of Carcassonne pressed him to take his place as one of the Canons of his Cathedral, the priest, no longer young, begged to be left to die in the midst of his flock. ” For indeed, Monseigneur,” he added, with fatherly pride, ” I would not change my little parish for your great bishopric.”

And there he lies in the humble graveyard of Saint-Martin-en-Lys, with the Legion of Honour on his breast. And though there are very few people who have ever heard of him, his story lives in the prosperity and health of the beautiful little town for which he gave his life; and who could have a more glorious monument than the road up the gorge of La Pierre-Lys?

I fear I have told this story at some length, but the stupendous sight of the gorge overwhelmed me with admiration for a man who could achieve, almost unaided, such a colossal task. The .rocks nearly meet overhead, and the road has to wind in and out among them, twisting and turning like a serpent. Now it burrows beneath the cliff, now tunnels through its very heart. And all the time the Aude murmurs and chatters at its side, foi it lies in the very depth of the canyon.