UNDER the roof of more than one French parsonage during the summer holidays I have found, as Bunyan wrote, ” harbour and good company.” On one sojourn of this kind do I look back with especial pleasure, that of September days in a Pyrenean hamlet. So near lies this little Protestant centre to the Spanish frontier that a bridle-path leads over the mountains into Aragon, the ride occupying three or four hours. I had journeyed with a friend from Pau, quitting the railway at Oloron (Basses Pyrenees), to enjoy a sixteen-mile drive, one of the loveliest of the countless lovely drives I have taken in France.
As we climbed the mountain road leading to our destination in the beautiful Vallée d’Aspe every turn revealed new features, a garve, or mountain stream, after the manner of Pyrenean streams, making noisy cascades, waterfalls, and little whirlpools by the way. On either side of the broadening velvety green valley, with its foamy, turbulent river, rose an array of stately peaks, here and there a glittering white thread breaking the dark surface of the rock, some mountain torrent falling from a height of many hundred or even thousand feet. After winding slowly upwards for three hours, the mountains closed round us abruptly, shutting in a wide verdant valley with white-walled, grey-roofed hamlets scattered here and there, all singularly alike. Half an hour more on the level, and we found ourselves not only in a pleasant, cheerful house, but at home, as if we had suddenly dropped upon old friends.
The parsonage-house, of somewhat greater pretensions than its neighbours, with church and school house, might almost be said to form one building, each of the three structures communicating with the other. On one side of the dwelling lay a little garden, or rather orchard, with seats under the trees. Three-storeyed, airy, roomy, the house suggested that palladium of the Reformed Church, family life, and at the same time attested the impartiality of the French State. As I have elsewhere particularized, there is no State or privileged church in France. Alike Protestant pastor, Jewish Rabbi, and in Algeria, Mohammedan Imam, receive stipends and accommodation, as well as the Catholic clergy.
When, after tea and a rest in our comfortable bedrooms, we joined the family board at dinner, we found a goodly assemblage, upwards of a dozen covers being laid. The presence of two other boarders accounted for the ample fare, excellent service, and an air of pervading comfort. But, as I have just said, we at once felt at home. Protestantism has ever been a kind of freemasonry, an anticipatory entente cordiale between French and English. Anglo-French marriages are chiefly, I am tempted to say, exclusively, found among Protestant circles in France. Of eight pastors I have known, four were wedded to English wives.
Partly owing to other circumstance, a parsonage, unlike the majority of French homes, is not hedged round by a Chinese wall. When young people from England or Scandinavia want to perfect themselves in French and see something of French family life, the only doors open to them are those of the presbytère.
Judicial as is the French Government in dealing with ministers of religion, a pastor’s pay cannot support a family.
The pupil, the boarder, swell the domestic budget, cover servants’ wages, and defray educational expenses.
Here the domestic atmosphere was one of well-being. A very genial and animated party we were, the family group numbering four boys and a girl, with the host’s brother, like himself a minister. In addition to these were two young men pursuing their studies during the long vacation. One was a French law-student, the other a Spanish ex-seminarist, who had renounced Rome and was preparing for Protestant ministry.
In the forenoon Monsieur C would be busy with his pupils, madame and her sixteen-year-old daughter, wearing little mob-caps and aprons, would occupy them-selves in household matters, their visitors could read or write abroad, having ever before them a grandiose panorama, on either side ” the everlasting hills,” ramparts of brilliant green, their slopes dotted with herdsmen’s chalet and shepherd’s hut. The mention of these recalls to memory a moving and highly suggestive incident.
One day, on taking my place at the breakfast or rather luncheon table, I missed our host and his eldest son, a lad of fifteen.
Madame C–., when we found ourselves alone, took the opportunity of explaining this absence. ” My husband, with Ernest, set off at five o’clock this morning for the mountain yonder,” she said, pointing to the highest points of the range over against us. ” The lad has an ardent desire to enter the ministry, and wanted some quiet talk with his father on the subject. My husband, for his part, as you can well conceive, was anxious to assure himself that the desire is no passing fancy, but a really devout aspiration. So the pair are going to have two days’ communion together, sharing at night the hospitality of a friendly herdsman. I expect them back tomorrow evening.”
It seemed to me a beautiful incident, this setting out of father and son for the mountain, on that awful height, amid those vast solitudes, as it were under the very eye of Heaven, taking counsel together, coming to the most momentous decision of a young life. If I remember rightly, the pastorate was decided upon. Another incident, this time of an amusing kind, I must mention.
In this pastoral region, sixteen miles from a railway, we certainly expected to find no country-people except under the pastor’s roof. But the ubiquitous British, where are they not ?
Here at the other end of the village, a retired Anglo-Indian with his wife and family had settled down, as the way of English folks is, surrounding themselves with as many comforts as could be got, bringing, indeed, an atmosphere of home. The one bourgeois dwelling of the place wore quite a familiar aspect when in the evening we all trooped thither, tea, chat, and table games being shared by young and old. It is amazing how the English teapot brings out the genial side, the human side of us all !
My host was especially happy in his church and in his people ; mes enfants he affectionately called these good dalesfolk, all with few exceptions forming his congregation, For the first time, indeed, I found my co-religionists in a majority, but the Vallée d’Aspe formed part of the ancient Béarn, and during centuries the Reformed faith has been stoutly upheld in these fastnesses. A tablet in the neat little church of Osse recalls how the original place of Protestant worship was levelled to the ground by royal edict in 1685, and only rebuilt in 1800. With a refinement of cruelty, it was the Protestants themselves who, on the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, were compelled to demolish their beloved temple. Deprived of church, pastor, and Bibles, constrained to bury their dead in field or garden, the Aspois yet clung tenaciously to the faith of their fathers. One concession, and one only, they made. Peasant property from time immemorial has existed in the Pyrenees, and in order to legitimize their children and enjoy testamentary privileges, the Protestants of the Vallée d’Aspe submitted to marriages according to Romish rites. Old family Bibles are very rarely to be found among the descendants of these ancient Huguenot families. The explanation is simple. No matter the precautions taken to hide such heirlooms and prime sources of consolation, sooner or later inkling was got of them by the maréchaussée, or royal police, and the sacred books were ruthlessly burnt.
Here I will mention that, although the Catholic and Protestant population live harmoniously side by side, inter-marriages are rare, and the rival churches neither gain nor lose adherents to any appreciable extent. Between Protestant pastor and Catholic priest in any part of France there is no kind of intercourse whatever. They stand aloof from one another as French and Germans in the annexed provinces.
On Sunday mornings the little church would be full, the men dressed in black, cloth trousers, alpaca blouses, and neckties, set off by spotless shirt-fronts, the older women wearing the black hood and long black coat of the traditional Huguenot matron, the younger of the children dark stuff gowns and coloured kerchiefs tied under the chin. The service was of the simplest, my host’s young daughter pre-siding at the harmonium, her mother leading the choir of school children, and all the congregation, as in English churches, joining in the hymns. The communion service was especially touching in its simplicity and the subdued fervour of the partakers. All stood in a semicircle before the table, the pastor, as he handed symbolic draught and bread to each, uttering some scriptural phrase appropriate to recipient and occasion.
One’s thoughts went back to the ancestors of these sturdy mountaineers, their pastors condemned to death or the galleys, their assemblage for purposes of worship liable to similar punishments, their very Bibles burnt by the common hangman. Like the Pilgrim Fathers, the French Huguenots have been tried in the fire, and rarely found wanting.
Sunday was observed as a day of unbroken repose. My host would, in the afternoon, take me for a round of calls ; and highly instructive were these chats with peasant farmers, some possessing an acre or two only, and living in frugalest fashion, others owning well-stocked farms of twenty or thirty acres, and commodious well-furnished houses. In one, indeed, we found a piano, pictures, and a Japanese cabinet I The region is entirely pastoral, hardly a bourgeois element entering into this community of six hundred souls. The village street consists of farmhouses, and where shops are needed folks betake themselves to Bedous, on the other side of the gave. Shopping, however, is here reduced to the minimum. The women still spin linen from home-grown flax, wheat and maize are grown for household use, pigs and poultry reared for domestic consumption, and milk is the chief drink of old and young. Doubtless, although this point I did not inquire into, every matron had her provision of home-made simples, a family medicine chest, conferring independence of the pharmacy.
With no little regret my friend and myself turned our backs upon this mountain-hemmed parsonage. Life is short, and the French map is enormous. Having set myself the task of traversing France from end to end, I could not hope to revisit scenes so full of natural beauty and pleasurable association. A drive of sixteen miles to and from a railway station is a serious obstacle to those who do not appreciate the motor-car. I felt that the Vallée d’Aspe, alas ! must remain a memory, a charming but closed chapter of French experiences.
It must not be inferred that every pastor’s lot is cast in such pleasant places. From a pecuniary and social point of view, many pastorates may appear more desirable ; but how delightful the peace of this Pyrenean retreat, how grateful the sense of reciprocated amity and esteem ! To some the isolation would prove irksome, especially during the winter season. The climate, however, is comparatively mild, and whilst the mountains are tipped with snow, the valley is very rarely so whitened.
In other French parsonages have I spent many weeks. One of these represented the humbler, a second the more cosmopolitan, type. Perhaps the stipend of the first incumbent reached two thousand francs, just £8o a year, in addition to good house and large garden. My hosts had two children, and at that time no private means. As, moreover, they lived in a remote country town, and were without English connections, boarders could not be counted upon. So the narrow resources were eked out with rigid economy. A servant was, of course, wholly out of the question. The pastor taught his boy and girl, and his wife, with occasional help from outside, did the housework. The daily fare was soup, followed by the meat and vegetables from which it had been made, a cutlet or some other extra being put before the visitor.
Madame, although neatness itself, never wore a gown except on Sundays, or when paying a visit, her usual costume being a well-worn but quite clean and tidy morning wrap. The solitary black silk dress had to be most carefully used, so little prospect seemed there of ever replacing it. By the strangest caprice of fortune, some years after my visit this lady’s husband inherited a handsome fortune. Rare, indeed, are such windfalls in the French parsonage, perhaps rarer still the sequel of this story.
For when I lately asked of a common friend what had become of the pastor and his heritage, she replied
He stays where he was, and does nothing but good with his money.”
My host of former days had neither quitted the little parsonage of that country town nor relinquished his calling.
There, amid old friends and associations, he will most likely end his days. We see in his case the result of early bringing up, the influence of Huguenot ancestry.
In large cities possessing a numerous Protestant community the stipend is higher, and the parsonage is replaced by a commodious flat. The attractions of society and resources of a town enable pastors to receive young men of good family, English or otherwise, who appreciably con-tribute to the family budget. Belonging to this category is the third pastoral roof under which I spent a pleasant summer holiday, and concerning which there is not much to say. Existence under such conditions becomes cosmopolitan. However agreeable may be our sojourn, it has no distinctive features.
The Protestant pastor has not found favour with the French novelists. Few and far between are the stories in which the Protestant element is introduced at all. ” Constance,” by Th. Bentzon, is an exception ; ” L’un vers l’autre,” an engaging story by a new writer, is another. The late Alphonse Daudet brutally travestied Protestantism in ” L’Evangeliste ;” and another writer of European reputation, M. Jules Lemaitre, stooped so low as to turn the Reformed faith into buffoonery for the stage. For the most part French writers seem to share Louis Blanc’s opinion in France Protestantism has ceased to exist.
I add that the Reformed Church (Calvinistic) in 1893 numbered 883 pastors, as against 90 of the Augsburg Confession (Lutheran), and that 800 French towns and communes possess Protestant churches, these figures being exclusive of English places of worship. The number of churches and schools is added to every year. All information on this subject is obtainable in the little ” Protestant Agenda,” an annual publication, price one shilling.