Ghosts of half a dozen civilizations keep tryst upon the hill of the Fourvieres with ancient Lyon. Here is a city with the constantly changing perspectives of a Grand Canon, a city that defies understanding or depiction. “The mist of years” is over it. The whispers of echoes that never die are in its flagged courts and shadowy arcades.
Electric lamps and modern street-cars have done little to change its appearance. These concessions to a material age are as baubles hung about the neck of the Sphinx. Behind the facade of modernity the calm old city smiles with the wisdom and tolerance of two thousand years. The industry of the twentieth century and the culture that is a heritage from the days of the Roman Empire mingle here but are not one. For Lyon is not one city but three or four. One stands in the blue glare of an arc-lamp before Notre Dame and sees, without noting the incongruity, the age-old contours of a road that Augustus built.
From the railroad station to the Place Bellecour one treads an asphalt pavement in an atmosphere that might be that of London or Marseille. But just around the corner are cobbled byways whose twistings might be read as a topographical map of the twelfth century. Wall to wall with latter-day hotels are pensions whose stairways are semi-detached affairs, winding upward in exterior towers after the manner of the stairs in the chateau forts that crown the heights of the Rhone.
Lyon, approaching a three-thousandth birthday as a center of human habitation, is a miracle and a paradox. It is old as the pyramids and as young as aviation. Not that it displays the adolescence of some of the modernized port cities. Its youth is a thing of spirit rather than buildings of concrete and steel. Nor has it close resemblance to the staid and hoary old towns of Provence. Its charm is a combination of both and independent of either.
Night gives it a mystery apart from that with which age has endowed it. Wherever one looks there are lights suspended against the sky, quaint constellations, uncharted universes with stationary planets and captive moons. And one looks a second time before realizing that these unfamiliar celestial bodies are lamps on the hill-roads, arc-lights over the gates of rocky strongholds, or the gleaming windows of cliff-side homes. Lyon is set between groups of hills unseen in the darkness, a site which accounts for many of the peculiarities of its streets. Railroad trains entering the city disdain complicated grades and dive into the stations through tunnels. Thus the heights, unseen by the arriving traveler, suddenly thrust themselves upon him as a phenomenon unexpected and unexplained.
By day the upstanding promontories lose their mystery but gain in beauty. Across the Saone the hill of the Fourvieres steps upward over the terraces of greenery and stone to an apex in the towers of Notre Dame. On this hillside one may read in a few minutes centuries of the city’s history. . . . Roman monuments, Renaissance adaptations of Burgundian buildings, forbidding stone structures of revolutionary times, more recent temples.
Hercules, whose name in the lore of the Rhone has been taken by antiquarians to mean the Phenicians, established a trading-post near this spot perhaps a thousand years before the Christian era. Legend has it that he founded a school here, teaching the Gauls the advantages of peace and commerce, until at length his mission called him to a road-engineering trip across the Alps into Italy. At that time, and during the centuries that followed, until the advent of the Roman arms, the city was scattered over the hill of the Fourvieres. A Greek settlement, an outpost of Massilia, occupied the heights to the north, to-day known as the suburb of Croix-Rousse.
Roman disaster gave the town its name in 41 B.C., when the Allobrogians, descending en masse upon the Roman colony at Vienne, massacred most of the inhabitants and drove the remnant of the population to the plateau above the Saone. The refugees intrenched themselves in the Gaulish village on the Fourvieres, rebuilt the town, and called their new community Luctus Dunum, hill of sorrow. Before the passing of the empire, Luctus Dunum had be-come Lugdunum, a name which the Lingua Franca softened into Lyon.
At the time of its first settlement and for perhaps two thousand years afterward, the Saone and the Rhone merged at a point close to the Croix-Rousse. Crude dikes and canals deferred this marriage of the waters each year until a narrow strip of land extended southward between them for a mile or more like an island anchored to the northern hill. On this strip the city expanded. The Citizen Perrache gave the city proper all of the territory below the Place Perrache by extending the junction of the rivers still farther southward. The suburb of the Cuillotiere on the left bank of the Rhone is of comparatively recent origin.
With the development of Roman power in Gaul, Lyon rose to new importance. Here was born the Emperor Claudius, who showered it with dignities. Nero re-built it in typical Roman magnificence, after a great fire had swept the slopes of the Fourvieres early in his reign. Trajan ruled in the empire when the Forum Vetus, from which the hill takes its name, was constructed near the present site of Notre Dame. As it became more and more the secondary capital of the Roman dominions and less and less a city of the Gauls, men of importance in the Imperial Government came to make it their home. It was the birthplace also of the emperors Marcus Aurelius, Caracalla and Geta and still displays marks of their beneficence.
Twenty-two bridges link the scattered segments of the modern city, white bands by day and arcs of illumination by night. Shaded boulevards stretch from bridge to bridge, crossing each other in wide plazas where ancient art and modern wealth have strewn flowers and sculpture and fountains. Lyon is worthy of its ancient and honorable ancestry.
Lyon has always been a sort of research laboratory for the rest of France. From here came Ampere, a man whose name is familiar to every American who pays an electric-light bill on the first of the month. A visionary bequeathed to the town a silk-loom, and succeeding generations of spinners have made of it one of the greatest of the world’s textile manufacturing centers. Great generals have fought for it. Great engineers have fortified it.
The common-sense policy governing Lyon’s development has given it an investigative character. Probably as a heritage from its early Burgundian population, the city has ever shown a distaste for the commonplace. Little is said of the style of weapons used by Roland and Oliver in their celebrated battle on the island, but it is to be believed that their swords were of novel design and peculiar material. Else these doughty knights must have sought else-where for a city to preserve their fame. The Roman Lyon promoted the art of oratory by throwing the mediocre orators in the Rhone. Later Lyon showed much of the same stern mettle in the protection of the arts and sciences. It is not remarkable that a city thus combining inventive, practical, and cultural characteristics should have produced the first detectiveor at least the first detective story in European history.
The story is that of Jacques Aymar and his divining-rod. The proces-verbal of Monsieur de Vanini, procureur du roi, in a celebrated murder-case which he solved, is to be found in the Lyon library. I made a special trip there to find it and solicited the aid of Monsieur Fageot of the library staff.
“Aymar,” repeated Monsieur Fageot. “Mais oui, I have heard of him. Students of folk-lore who come here have always been anxious to look at the records of his career. There have been several books written about Aymar, monsieur, in your language and in French. He was the Monsieur Lecoq of his time, and it is not surprising that he should have attracted interest.”
He disappeared into a book-lined tunnel and returned after a few minutes with a folio in spotted vellum, which he laid on the table. He looked as if he might have known Aymar personally when he adjusted his steel-rimmed glasses and bent his gray head into the yellow tome. He had that air of antiquity which many keepers of museums and libraries seem to acquire from the objects in their care. And he spoke of the great detective with an easy familiarity.
“Ah, here is mention of the theft of Grenoble,” he said with a nod of satisfaction. “I remember the case well. . . . He had strange gifts this Aymar.” And again : “Here is the account of how they tested him. I remember that . . . how they buried the hedge-knives, and how the divining-rod vibrated in his hands when he approached the one with the blood on it.”
It was as if the spirit of one of Aymar’s examiners had remained in this old body for two hundred years to do justice to his memory. The story, as Monsieur Fageot pieced it together from the material in his ancient book, was simple and vivid. At the height of his fame as a human bloodhound, this medieval detective probably had no more enthusiastic proponent.
Jacques Aymar of the district of Crole was a youth of some talent as a farmer, who cultivated cabbages by day and sorcery by night.
Success attended him in both pursuits, indicating, it would seem, that he was a man of considerable versatility. But the beauties of his garden-produce aroused his interest not nearly so much as the vibrations of the mystic hazel-bush. He cut a forked twig and opened a detective-agency.
It was in 1688 that Aymar first took the field against crime, and, as has been the case with other innovatois, found his path beset by skeptics. In those days every one was acquainted with the power of the divining-rod to point out hidden gold, underground waters, lost dogs, or the weather for the week after next. But reliance upon the peculiarities of the hazel-bush for the detection of crime was quite another thing. They advised Aymar to stick to his cabbages and so counseled better than they knew.
Then occurred the theft of Grenoble. Several suits of clothes were stolen from one of the town dandies, who received little help from the police. In desperation the victim called the talented Jacques.
Aymar entered the house and held the forked twig in both hands before him. The twig vibrated violently.
“There has been a robbery here just as you said,” he conceded. “I know now that you have not lied to me. Tell me what stranger was in the house just before the clothes were missed.”
“A stone-mason who repaired the chimney,” replied the dandy.
“Where is he now?” inquired Jacques.
“In prison for assaulting a policeman,” answered his employer. The hazel-twig vibrated so rapidly that it was scarcely visible.
Aymar walked out of the house and through the city, keeping to those streets that produced the strongest effect upon the divining-rod, and, strange to relate, came at length to the gates of the prison. He was allowed to enter and, impelled by the mystic forces of the hazel-twig, proceeded without hesitation toward one of the prisoners whose plaster-stained dress marked him for a stone-mason. Confronted by this overwhelming evidence, the man confessed to the robbery and told where he had hidden the stolen goods. Aymar’s fortune was made.
During the ensuing four years he gained such a reputation that professional thieves dared not enter Grenoble, and the divining-rod became dry and inflexible through lack of use. Then occurred the crime which brought him to Lyon and gave him international fame.
On the morning of July 6, 1692, Francois Merseault and his wife were found murdered in the cellar of their wine-shop in the Rue d’Auvergne. A straw-wrapped bottle and a blood-stained hedge-knife were the only clues. The slayers had escaped from the place unseen.
Here was a situation to tax the powers of any divining-rod, and Aymar was called in by the police of Lyon. He modestly refused to comment upon his gifts as a detective except to assert that he could lay hands upon the murderers within a week and that if he were not employed the mystery probably would remain unsolved.
The procureur du roi escorted him in person to the scene of the crime, where the divining -rod began its vibration. Aymar carried it outside and followed its direction as he had done in Grenoble from one crooked street to another until he came to the court of the archbishop’s palace. There the search paused until daylight.
On the following day Jacques and his hazel-branch led three officers of the crown to a gardener’s cottage on the right bank of the Rhone.
“He can’t have come here, this murderer,” declared the procureur du roi. “He would certainly have been detected.”
“But,” countered Aymar, “had he taken any of the other roads he must have been seen by some of those witnesses whom I questioned yesterday. This is the only route that seems to have been deserted last night. And, anyway, the divining-rod proves that I am right. The murderer came to this cottage and stopped here to eat.”
Investigation proved that three men had stopped there early in the morning after the affair of the Rue d’Auvergne and that they had made close inquiries about the roads that led into Provence. For the first time in the proceedings the officers admitted that Aymar’s ability might be all that he had represented.
But they decided not to carry their search beyond the suburban limits of Lyon without further test. Then occurred the trial of the five hedge-knives.
The knives were buried in a garden near the Saone, four of them new implements, one of them the bloody memento of the Rue d’Auvergne murder. Aymar was then brought in. He detected without difficulty the hiding-places of the entire five, after which he pointed out with scarcely greater delay the spot in which the stained knife had been interred. The test satisfied the procureur-general, and the investigation proceeded.
Aymar went back to the gardener’s hut and from there marched down the right bank of the Rhone. Near the bridge of Lyon he came upon footsteps in the sand which seemed to indicate that three men had entered a boat. The detective and his aids took a similar course.
The description of the trip that followed is thoroughly detailed in three contemporaneous accounts. Whatever Aymar’s ability, he was conscientious and painstaking in covering his ground. He received a faint but sufficient guidance from the divining-rod on the water and landed every now and then to determine whether or not the three fugitives had left the river. He pointed out with remark-able assurance the dozens of spots at which the murderers had stopped to pass the night or obtain food. And so the search continued until Aymar came to Beaucaire.
It is one of the remarkable things in the accounts of Aymar’s performances that he usually discovered the per-son he was seeking behind the walls of a prison. As a labor-saving device this procedure has much to recommend it to modern detectives. Aymar’s work in the interests of justice was never halted long by the official delays incident to arrest and extradition. In the case of the Lyon murder he pursued his customary course. He walked through the streets of Beaucaire to the prison.
There he learned that his divining-rod had not deceived him. Only that morning the authorities had arrested a thief at a street fair and had obtained from him an admission that he had recently arrived in the city from Lyon.
“Devil take the villainous hunchback,” commented the worthy jailer. “I knew that he had more to his record than this bit of petty larceny.”
“Do not point out the criminal,” advised Aymar. “I shall find him.” And find him he did. There were twenty prisoners in the jail, nineteen of them tall and straight, one hunchbacked and short. Aymar passed before them. The rod remained rigid until the hunchback was approached, whereupon it dipped noticeably.
“I never saw such a thing,” declared the jailer. “If I had pointed out the man to you, you could n’t have found him more quickly.”
And so Aymar returned to Lyon in triumph.
At Lyon the hunchback confessed. What devices were used to jog his memory are not described in chronicles of the case. But he more than confirmed the theories of Aymar. He stated that he had acted as the servant of two Provencals who had lured Francois and his wife into the cellar in the Rue d’Auvergne on the pretext of selecting some choice wine.
“I kept watch above,” the prisoner said. “They killed the old man and woman with a hedge-knife. Then they took the contents of the coffereight golden louis, a quantity of silver pieces and a silver belt.
“We fled to the court of the bishop’s palace, where we stayed during the remainder of the night, and set out at daybreak toward Provence along the right bank of the Rhone. We stopped for a time at a gardener’s house and then continued afoot until we found a boat. We stole it and floated down the river to Beaucaire.”
Aymar was less successful in his search for the two accomplices. His hazel-rod led him for a second time to the gates of the prison at Beaucaire, but the man described by the hunchback was not present. Later the trail led to the Italian frontier, whence he returned with the announcement that the pair had made good their flight from France.
On August 30 the hunchback paid for the crime by being broken on the wheel in the Place des Terreaux, and the former cabbage-grower of Crole was hailed as the foremost criminologist of Europe.
He had two other notable cases after that. The Prince of Conde enlisted his aid in the discovery of the persons who had been stealing fish from the ponds at Chantilly. Through some oversight, the prince failed to mention that the thefts had occurred seven years before. But such an error did not hamper the artful Jacques. Without hesitation he trailed the thief to a keeper’s cottage and pointed out the head keeperarrived during the year from Lorraine as the thief. The keeper, who doubtless was acquainted with the outcome of legal disputes between princes and trout-raisers, fled precipitately. On the following day a youth picked haphazard from a crowd in the street was brought before Aymar and introduced as the son of the accused keeper.
Such a test might have bothered another detective, especially inasmuch as the missing keeper had no son, but Aymar was equal to the occasion.
“This youth did not commit the crime, but he ate some of the fish,” he reported. The prince then suggested that he get himself a new divining-rod, and escorted him out of the city.
In his next case Aymar was required to trace some jewelry stolen from Monsieur Goyonnot, recorder of the royal council. Before calling in the detective, Monsieur Goyonnot threw a stone through a front window in his house, just to complicate the problem, already somewhat involved because of the fact that the stolen jewelry had never existed.
Aymar, however, found the room in which the jewelry had been kept, pointed out the broken window as the spot where the thieves had entered and left the house, and located the road by which they had fled. Immediately after that he went back to Grenoble somewhat discredited.
“But he was a great man,” stoutly maintained Monsieur Fageot. “These divining-rods probably were moved subconsciously by the man who held them. But unless he had had gifts of perception his imagination would not have led him to success in the detection of crime. He may have been a great faker or a human bloodhound with a supernormal instinct. At any rate he was a great man.”
And, despite the unfortunate affairs of the trout and the broken window, I agreed with him. Baring-Gould outlines the feats of Aymar with amusement. Various others, skeptical of “animal magnetism” and its kindred forces, have discussed his career without reaching a definite conclusion. The broken window case seems to disconcert them. The methods of a detective who discovers the perpetrators of an actual crime might be easily explained; those of an investigator who arrives unerringly at all the facts of a crime that was never committed are less capable of analysis.
Lyon made notable contributions to the world’s progress. It was from the Fourvieres that a bishop, son of a Burgundian king, announced the famous Truce of God and put a curb on the private wars of feudalism. According to the terms of the truce, the feudal knights were required to abstain from fighting three days a week under penalty of excommunication. The embargo naturally took all the good out of war. It worked considerable hardship on backwoods Napoleons, who fed their warriors seven days for every four of actual combat. They cried loudly against the injustice of the law. But the bishop was high-handed about it and advertised so thoroughly that the procedure was adopted generally throughout Christendom, which probably is just as well for civilization.
Walk along the quays of the Rhonesparkling waters under a noonday sun, leaping bridges, flower-gardens, greenery, stately colonnades. Here one sees a new Lyon. One might expect to find the customary municipal ghosts in such a spot. It is here that they should take their promenade if they are really the spirits that they are given credit for being. . . . Yes, they must be here. One feels the presence of clashing influences. The atmosphere of the quays is vibrant with a mystery that no thorough-going ghost-lover could leave unsolved.
Happily the problem is not serious. There is a humming sound in the air, a sound that one feels rather than hears. The ghost responsible for that manifestation is easily identified. It is the spirit of the silk-looms, the thousands of mechanical wheels and distaffs and bobbins that have given the city its leadership isn the manufacture of fine textiles. Then one remembers. . . .
On an island down the Rhone toward old Vienne, Roland, son of Charlemagne, met the knight Oliver for a battle to the death. They carried swords that no ordinary warrior could lift, and their armor was light, as befitted knights of great skill. They met, and the hills resounded with the echoes of steel on steel. From the bank the watching armies could see the flame-like sweep of the two-handed weapons and the showers of sparks as blow countered blow. But they were evenly matched, the battling knights. The world had never seen their equal for training or endurance. All day long they battered each other, neither giving ground, neither showing signs of fatigue. They stopped only when a voice from heaven announced to them the folly of a duel between brave Christians when there were so many Saracens abroad in the world. Then Roland and Oliver shook hands and agreed to call the match a draw. Bleeding from a dozen wounds, they rowed back to the river-bank and rejoined their troops. They marched to camp without medical attention.
Those were days of blood and iron, two-handed swords, two-fisted men, every meadow a battlefield, every day a day of conflict. More than once the Rhone ran red where now these stone quays rise from the water as stepping-stones to a new city. Perhaps now one may understand the sense of conflict that is in the air. The spirits of the fighting men quarrel with the spirits of the looms. The ghosts of old Lyon fling their challenge to those of the new. . . .
The ancient Lyon ! Men in armor ride out to war, pennons aloft on the staffs of glittering pikes, helmets and cuirasses agleam in the sun. That was the old chivalry.
The new Lyon ! A motor-truck unloads a cargo of bales and boxes. A one-armed porter, who wears a cap of horizon blue and the ribbon of the Croix de Guerre, shouts orders to other porters, who begin to cart the boxes toward a waiting freight-car. One reads the labels, listens to the hum of the mills, and smiles. A shipment of silk stockings, silk lingerie, and silk hangings for scented boudoirs is on its way to Main Street. And this is the new chivalry.