France – On Such A Night As This

Old Mere Therese pushed half a dozen willow twigs through the lower door of her tiny stove and moved the pot-au-feu to a warmer place on the nearly gelid surface. Then she drew forward her rush-bottomed chair and settled herself to her knitting. . . . Mysterious noises in the street. . . . Strange whisperings in the empty fireplace. . . . Rattling sounds like hurried footsteps on the tiled roof. . . . Shadows on the wall, dancing as the flame staggered on the wick of the guttering candle.

“On such a night as this, monsieur,” she observed, with a solemn tone and secretive air, “Charles the Bold of Burgundy rode out to his death. He lost an empire, monsieur, because he did not dare to rescue a beautiful woman.”

Click, click, click, the needles, flashing like swords in miniature combat. Madame was much concerned about this sad fate of Charles the Bold. I had heard the story before and I knew that I was next to listen to a detailed account of all his virtues—his bravery, his generosity, his chastity. Mere Therese knew all of these things as well as she knew her prayers. She might have been put to some small effort in telling me of the personal affairs of Jacques Routray who had lived next door to her these many decades. But no such difficulty existed in the case of the Duke Charles. In madame’s conversation he was more than an intimate, he was a confidant.

“It was a sad day for this part of Burgundy when the great Charles was killed, monsieur. Although they do say that in the end it was the best thing for France. But the people of the duke’s country loved him. They were rich, very rich, monsieur, and how they must have wept when that brave man died!”

And so the story went on while the twigs crackled in the stove and the wind walked with ghostly footsteps among the tiles.

“On such a night,” is a common enough reference in the Cote-d’Or in early spring. Rain and fog and wind. . . . If the ghosts of Burgundy’s crowded cemeteries fail to wander over the country-side under such conditions, they are a sorry lot and cannot appreciate an opportunity.

Madame finished with Charles and pushed another handful of twigs into the little stove.

“On such a night, monsieur—so they tell the tale in Provence where I was brought up until I came north to the cold and the fogs—Guillaume Moret of Tarascon followed the Golden Goat to perdition in the caverns of Les Baux.”

More knitting, more attention to the fire, and more stir-ring of the pot-au-feu while madame lowered her voice to spin another tale. And so through the evening this little old woman turned the crank of the cinema of the Golden Kingdom.

When she spoke one saw Gondebaud of the iron hand, stern example of a royal race of fratricides, standing in the shambles of Lyon; Bertille of the Three Golden Crowns, tripping down the sunlit road out of Chalon; Joan the Maid, riding from her sheltered home toward a pyre at Rouen; Charles the Bold, uncrowned emperor, cut down in his glory by a penniless duke and a minstrel king; Rene of Provence, fighting stirrup by stirrup with La Pucelle be-fore Orleans, writing chansons in his prison tower at Dijon, jingling his lute or dancing with the shepherds in his toy-shop kingdom; knights, ladies, troubadours, crusaders, mercenaries, courtiers, pages, heralds, queens, kings, and courtezans . . . gray ghosts growing dimmer and grayer.

There is a little left of Gondicaire’s kingdom of the Burgundians—a moss-grown wall here, an ivy-covered tower there, a crannied cathedral nave, a fragment of a cobbled road. Of the kingdoms that emerged from the engulfing tide of peoples only to be themselves engulfed, the relics are scarcely more numerous or more coherent. The Burgundy that was is divided between Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, France, and Italy. No trace of language and few of custom give hint that these scattering provinces might ever have had a community of interest. And yet the old kingdom lives on as certainly to-day as it did when the genial blond barbarians from the forests beyond the Rhine overthrew Roman control in the Rhone valley. The kingdom lives because its motley kings, tatterdemalion warriors, guitar-playing swashbucklers, and mace-wielding choristers have refused to remain in their moldy tombs.

It is perhaps unfair even to refer to the heroes of Burgundy as ghosts, for that would imply that they are dead and gone, a supposition far from fact. The white riders of Autun and the mysterious ladies who glide among the roses of Dijon are not phantoms but reincarnations—a bit more ethereal than ghosts, it is true, but on better terms with the general public.

Physical Burgundy was a thing quite as elusive and in-tangible as the wraiths of memory that have given it immortality. Bryce in his “Holy Roman Empire” points out that it had ten different existences : the kingdom of the Burgundians, established by Teutonic invaders in 406; the kingdom of Burgundy, a principality under the Merovingian kings; the kingdom of Cisjurane Burgundy, also called the kingdom of Provence, founded by Boson in 879 and comprising the present districts of Provence, Dauphine, the southern part of Savoy, and the country between the Saone and the Jura; the kingdom of Transjurane Burgundy established by Rodolfe in 888 and embracing all of Switzer-land and northern Savoy; the kingdom of Burgundy or Arles, formed by the union of Cisjurane Burgundy with Transjurane Burgundy under Conrad the Pacific in 937; Minor Burgundy, a duchy comprising most of Switzerland west of the Reuss and technically a part of the Holy Roman Empire from the collapse of the kingdom of Arles until 1648; Upper Burgundy (the Franche-Comte), the district between the Saone and the Jura to which the name Cisjurane Burgundy properly belonged, German, French, and Spanish by turns and ceded back to the crown of France in 1678; the landgraviate of Burgundy, which lay in west-ern Switzerland and disappeared in the thirteenth century; the Circle of Burgundy, an administrative grouping of the Franche-Comte and the Netherlands provinces inherited by Emperor Charles V, established in 1548; and finally the duchy of Burgundy, northern part of the old kingdom of the Burgundians, plus the Franche-Comte and the Nether-land provinces, the great feudal heritage of which the Valois dukes hoped to build an empire.

There is still a district of Burgundy in France, an amorphous territory that spreads out from the Cote-d’Or and includes the rocky uplifts of the Saone and the Yonne, whence come the rich red wines to which the ancient kingdom has given its name. One who speeds through it aboard the rapide from Paris to the Riviera retains an impression only of vine-clad hills, peaceful villages, and laughing rivers and fails to realize that here was generated a movement which nearly changed the face of Europe. Even the traveler who pays an extended visit to this district usually remembers it as a friendly and fascinating reliquary in which the dead bones of other ages remain imperishable. Few find time to consider Old Burgundy as the vast entity that it was, to read its unbelievable story in its towers and spires and donjon keeps, to commune with its phantoms on terms of understanding and sympathy.

The ancient Burgundy was and is something quite apart from the France that enveloped it. And even now that it has grown hazy in the twilight of the years, a sort of Atlantis engulfed beneath seas upon seas of new people, the imaginative visitor may walk its old roads as in a country so far undiscovered by tourist and native alike. There is magic in the castles that crumble on the hilltops. The eternal rivers, laughing on their way to the sea as they did when iron-bound knights followed them on their gallant adventure against the paynim, are a tangible link with the past. There is sorcery in the moonlight trickling through the crooked streets of a gray old city.

The legend of Burgundy, its wealthy lore of fairy queens, mythic beasts, and invincible heroes, its chansons de geste, its chronicles of joust and battle, all are something quite different from tales pieced together for the amusement of children. Burgundian literature and Burgundian history are closely intertwined. Burgundian heroes of folk-lore may differ somewhat in character from the Burgundian heroes of fact. But not much. Whether Charles the Bold worked his military miracles with a flat sword or the talisman of a serpent’s fangs is merely a matter of detail. Whether Queen Fredegunde was a witch or merely a too amorous Jezebel is a fine literary point that probably did not concern the royal heads that passed through her scarlet hands. Sufficient for the telling of the story is the fact that there really existed a Charles the Bold and that Fredegunde once lived and loved and brewed potent poisons.

Decked in the quaint coloring of its legend, Burgundy’s history continues to be vital. Like that of Spain, it is one vast melodrama with great tense moments, tragic denouements, and an underlying motif of tender love and glittering romance. As history it is so amazing that no fantastic detail of it seems incredible as legend.

There is no fairy-story in any language to compare with the marvelous adventure of Joan of Arc as it may be read in the unembellished chronicles of contemporary historians or in the dry, stilted phrases of the court at Rouen that burned her as a witch.

An illiterate peasant girl hears voices under a fairy tree, rides into battle, routs the wily veterans of a dozen campaigns, and saves a nation. So fantastic a figure is she in that hard-bitten age which fostered her that later centuries might not be blamed for doubting that she ever existed. King Rene of the ready sword, the facile pen, and the singing lute is as strange an anomaly as ever stepped into a nursery-rime. Jaques Lalain, a sort of combination Gil Blas and Don Quixote, was “the knight of the enchanted armor” in contemporary gossip; in history he is “the knight of the invincible sword-arm,” a distinction at which the true romancer may be permitted to smile.

And so it is no task at all to credit the tales of Burgundy. One feels an instinctive sorrow for the somewhat ludicrous Arlesian who wasted his substance in pursuit of the Golden Goat. One thrills at the passionate recital of the love of Aucassin and Nicolette of Beaucaire. One alights from a twentieth-century automobile at Domremy and finds a tear in his eye for the Maid of Orleans, gone to her doom these many centuries. One wishes luck to the imprisoned fairy of the Jura. One feels an indignation that practical minds might consider a bit useless when the shade of the intriguing Duchess Imogene brushes by him in the Salle des Gardes of Dijon. And one walks the old roads in strange company. . . .

Old Mere Therese fed another handful of twigs to the little stove.

“You will find when you have lived here for a time, monsieur,” she said, “that you can see the old people of Burgundy very easily. Monsieur le Cure says that they do not exist and that there may be harm in imagining such things. But I see no harm in it.

“Strange men lived in these hills and valleys, monsieur. One should not expect them to behave like ordinary persons after they are dead. And I think that it would be very hard for the ghosts of common folks to stay in their coffins on such a night as this.”