France – Thiers

The picturesque town of Thiers is set on the side of the steep ravine which the swift river Durole has carved in the ” Alps of Auvergne,” as Fortunatus the poet calls the wild rugged district which lies to the east and south. It is a charming old place, with narrow, winding streets, where all day you may watch the cutlers at work in their dark shops.

In each black little den sat two or three men, working at their own particular section of the trade, so that, by the time we reached the end of the street, we had gained quite an insight into the craft. One’ shop held us captive for a long time. Through a low arched window we could see a young man with a pale face, and long, lank hair, filing, filing, filing! In a corner, at the back, lighted by the ruddy glow of a small furnace, stood a burly blacksmith, forging knife blades. And as he blew the bellows, the fire leapt up, till the air was full of fine sparks like flame dust, and against the glowing background was silhouetted the clear-cut, motionless profile of the young man, who sat with lowered eyes, filing, filing. It was a living Rembrandt. A little further along an old man had just finished his work for the day, and came out as we were passing. I gave him a ” good evening,” and asked him the way to the Cathedral.

” I live close by,” said he; ” we will walk together.”

In France, as elsewhere, one rarely finds a working man who knows anything of the history of the town in which he lives. But this old cutler was an exception. I had read a good bit about Thiers one way and another, but it was quite a different matter hearing the story of the town as we sauntered along those ancient, narrow streets, where many of the incidents had occurred.

There was Viscount Guy VI., who claimed the right to dine with the Bishop for three days at Christmas. And his son, Stephen, who ran off with a nun from the Convent of Courpiere, and was ordered to ” put her back,” and to pay the Abbess £3O toward the building of a new dormitory. And I heard of the Lady Jeanne, who married the Dauphin of Auvergne, through whom the town passed to the Duke of Bourbon, and from them to that great heiress, Mademoiselle de Montpensier, whose acquaintance we have already made.

As we came opposite the Cathedral, the old man stopped.

” That is the Cathedral,” said he; ” it used to stand inside the castle wall. The castle’s gone, all save the tower. But the church remains. Think of all those lords and ladies who lived here. Dead, dead every one of them—even their tombs forgotten! But there stands the Cathedral as strong as ever. I hear they are talking of doing away with the church. Bah! let them try! ”

” You are a churchman? ”

” Oh, sufficiently. I practise my religion, as my father did. In Thiers, we hold to the ways of the ancients. It is in the blood, look you.

The road, on leaving Thiers, runs to the valley of the Dore, where at a great carrefour we turn off to the south, and presently reach Courpiere.

At 0lliergues the valley broadens, but it is a lonely valley, cut off from the world, a place where all kinds of things might happen and have happened. And it is in this strange solitude, walled in on every hand by mountains, that, just as twilight is falling, we cross the old bridge and enter the clean little town of Ambert.

Ages ago, only five hundred years after the foundation of Marseilles, a colony of Phocaeans came ashore in Southern Gaul. Northward they wandered, led by a chief called Ambertos. One day they came upon a pleasant valley, curtained by mountains; and there beside the river, which they named the Dore, they settled and built a stockade. ” Livradois,” or as we should say, delivered from the ocean, ” they named the district in which, after their many wanderings, they found rest and peace, and their village they called Ambert, after their Chief Ambertos.

It is ten o’clock next morning. We are running up the valley of the Dore. Only when one tries to leave it does one realise how isolated is this arrondissement of Ambert. On either side the stream are meadows rising into hills, and beyond, closing in the valley on every side, are purple mountains, which we needs must climb to make our way to La Chaise Dieu, and thence south-ward, whither we are bound.