Some sixty miles south of Lyon, near where the Isere flows into the Rhone, one enters a region of brown, fire-molded rocks in masses that recall the scenic perspectives of Greece and Sicily, and here amid hills of porphyry sits Valence, one of the strangest towns of the old Burgundian possessions. Valence, new, trim, and fairly prosperous, welcomes the visitor with the set smile of an aging actress who would hide her identity, her past, and the numerical position of her last birthday with a bit of grease-paint and a stage-name.
“There is little in Valence that will interest the visitor,” says the red guide-book.
Le Bas raises his encyclopedic voice to echo this heresy. He says, “This town, founded on the Rhone and in the middle of picturesque sites, does not possess a single remarkable monument.” If one excepts the Cathedral of St. Apollinaire founded in the eleventh century, it is safe to admit that his criticism, as far as it goes, is just. But the guide-book-maker and antiquarian alike fall into one serious error. They pay no attention to those deeply carved tablets of memory and tradition that are never erased.
Valence, from the time it was founded as the Valentia Segovellanorum, a contact-point between the Romans and the Gauls, somehow found itself in the road of all the armies that went ravaging up and down the Rhone. The Romans made a city beautiful of it. The barbarians, flowing in from the Alps and Jura, sacked and burned it. The Saracens seized it. Charles Martel looted what the Arabs had left. The Normans, the Hungarians, and the kings of Burgundy all had a hand in brewing its destiny.
Pope Pius VI died here in 1798 after an imprisonment of twenty-eight days in the Hotel du Gouvernement. His heart still rests in the cathedral.
The town was once capital of the Comte de Valentinois, given by Louis XII to Cesare Borgia in 1498. Diane of Poitiers, that gay sinner said by Francis I to be the most beautiful woman in the world, became duchess here in 1518. For a few years, at least, Valence was the capital from which this butterfly lady ruled France and meddled with the destinies of Europe.
Valence was a center of combat in the religious wars. It was during the Calvinistic occupation that Pere Edmond Auger, S. J., preacher and controversialist, arose to fame by convincing the stern warriors of the city garrison that the tongue is mightier than the sword.
Pere Edmond was an orator whose powers would have insured him a fair following in this district even in the uncertain days of the Roman declamation contests. It irked him to see the Protestant forces in control of the city, and, with a degree of confidence remarkable even in a Burgundian of the seventeenth century, he set out single-handed to put a stop to it.
He walked up to the Calvinist outposts, talked to them, and demanded admittance to the city. They listened, decided that one lone Jesuit could do nothing in an armed camp except perhaps to get himself killed, and allowed him to pass.
Pere Edmond’s plan was simple. He could not hope to give battle to all these heretics at once. Nor did there seem to be any prospect of bribing them to move their camp from Valence. Obviously his only course was to convert them, and that speedily.
His clerical garb attracted some attention as he marched through the city. But most of those who saw him announced audibly that they would not be gulled. It was too patent that a priest would not dare to venture abroad in highways where Calvinist sentries stood with ready pikes. There-fore this masquerade must be a rare jest. The beholders laughed uproariously.
But presently Pere Edmond came to a suitable spot in the Place of the Cathedral, and proceeded with his plan of peaceful penetration. He stood on a curb and began to harangue the soldiery.
He did not get far. A major who had little love for oratory, religious or secular, immediately placed Pere Auger under arrest, dragged him before the commandant of the town, and obtained an order, without the formality of a court martial, that the priest be burned to death in the square that he had selected for his speech-making. The major, as it turned out, had pursued a wise course in all but one respect. He had failed to urge that the order include the gagging of the intended victim.
Pere Edmond was rushed from the commandant’s office back to the cathedral square and tied to a stake, about which willing hands piled large bundles of fagots. During all this operation Pere Edmond was talking. He called upon his executioners to repent their sins, and he did such a good job of it that the mob suddenly quit carrying fagots and sat down in the streets for an examination of conscience.
A torchman of the military mumbled through the death-warrant and stepped forward to carry out the sentence. He was stopped by a burly carter who knocked him down.
“Let him talk,” demanded the carter. “We get little enough amusement out of life. We don’t believe what he ‘s said so far, but he surely can talk, and we ‘re going to hear him; anyway we have n’t anything else to do this morning.”
And so commenced a reenactment of the crisis made famous by the celebrated Scheherazade. Pere Edmond was given a chance to pit his oratory against the torchman’s torch. He had to proceed with great care. At any time a pause long enough to be mistaken for a period might cause his death.
There never was another voice like Pere Auger’s. The crowd in the Place of the Cathedral, at first respectfully silent, soon began to applaud and made a noise that attracted other crowds, among them Viret, chaplain and chief orator of the Calvinists.
The Protestant leader marched into the square in angry zeal and demanded that the execution proceed as scheduled.
“What means this delay?” he roared in holy wrath.
“The mob won’t let me burn him,” announced the executioner. “I have been sitting here now for a couple of hours, and I ’11 admit that he ‘s a convincing talker. I guess you had better get somebody else to put the torch under him.”
Viret was quite willing to comply with the request, but he could find no prospect of assistance in the audience. Pere Edmond had paid no attention to the wrangle between the executioner and the chaplain. He continued to talk.
In spite of himself, Viret halted in his search for a substitute fireman, and listened.
Then for the first time he realized the peculiar turn that the situation had taken. He rushed from the square to the office of the commandant and demanded that the priest be released.
“A man who can talk like that should not be burned,” he declared. “Far better that I should convert him from the ways of his error and enlist him as a crusader in our cause.”
“Anything to get him out of the square,” agreed the commandant. “Burn him or release him, but get the town opened up for traffic again. That I should have lived to see the day when one Jesuitand that one all ready to be cookedcould make a commander walk four streets out of his way!”
So the chaplain went back to the square, presented the order, and obtained Pere Auger’s release.
Ah, those terrible days of battle and hatred and fanaticism and bloodshed and civil war and strong ears. The two orators, side by side, as the priest was marched away to jail, bombarded each other with hypothetical questions and manceuvered skilfully their battalions of periodic sentences, while the breathless audience, trailing along behind, applauded both sides generously.
The pair arranged for a grand debate to which the entire city should be invited. But that interesting encounter never occurred. Before a suitable place for the meeting could be arranged, the Catholics took the city and rescued Pere Auger.
The remarkable feature of this quaint story is that it is historical and easily authenticated. Pere Auger was the founder of a college at Lyon, the first college in France that admitted Calvinist and Catholic youths on terms of equality. He was personal confessor to Henry III and personal enemy of the League. He died in Como, Italy, after an exciting career.
Across the river is the old Manoir de 1’Etoile, chateau of the infamous Diane. The walled fortress that she received with her title was ill suited to her tastes; so she remodeled it into a palace of pleasure and named it Chateau de Papillon.
No name could have been more apt. Diane was a butter-fly in manners and morals from the day that she first smiled upon Francis I until the day when death ended her attraction for Henry II.
Few kings mistresses, even in that day when the profession was overcrowded and exacting, showed the versatility and lasting ambition of the fair Diane. Some writers have erroneously contended that she sold herself to Francis I to purchase the liberty of her father, who was under sentence of death as the result of a political intrigue. But the compilers of court memoirs have been quick to defend her memory against such calumny.
Diane, they argue, would never have stepped from the path of virtue for so prosaic a reason. She entered the harem of Francis for no reason at all save that such a life appealed to her. It is well to record the contention here lest posterity deal too harshly with so lofty a character.
Diane is a peculiar sort of ghost to the people of this neighborhood. She does not return in the spirit. She does not bewail her sins in the Manoir de I’Etoile as one might expect. Yet the residents of Valence talk of her as if she were alive. She exists for them, though in a form even more attenuated than that of the common or chateau variety of phantom. She is a revitalized wraith of tradition.
The Chateau de Papillon now finds a practical use as a silk-factory. . . . The heritage of the butterfly to other butterflies. . . . There is a bit of poetic justice in that.
Not far from Valence the Tour Maudite leans drunkenly over a dizzy precipice and peers through one square eye into the Rhone below. It has a slant almost as pronounced as that of the leaning tower of Pisa but lacks evidence that its disregard for the rules of gravity is intentional.
Legend ascribes its crooked appearance to the apostasy of Louise d’Amauze, Abbess of Soyons, when the Huguenots captured the place. The abbess embraced the reformed faith at once. Some of her nuns followed her lead in fear of instant massacre. But the Huguenots proved to be considerate captors. They allowed the women who remained loyal to the old faith to return to Valence. Where-upon the “cursed tower” bowed low in token of farewell.
There are those skeptics in the valley who say that the Huguenot soldiery dug beneath the cliff wall of the tower in search of buried treasure and thus weakened the foundation. Such an explanation is, of course, manifestly absurd.
A comic element is added to the romantic history of this region by the ravages of the monkeys that fell out of the ark when it grounded on a peak near Donzere before reaching Ararat. The actual port of call of the ark is about forty miles down the river, but the monkeys thus abandoned in a strange land waited only for the flood to subside before extending their operations throughout the neighborhood. For centuries the Maraniousques, or monkey rocks, were the seat of the family. Until succeeded by less amusing fighting men, the busy exiles occupied themselves in the gentle pastime of throwing rocks at the passing river trade.
Across the river from Valence St.-P’eray rises sleepily from amid patchwork quilts of vineyards.
A Valence Le Midi commence, runs the proverb, and it is well exemplified here in the sun-browned mosses on the rocky cliffs and in the quiet southern atmosphere of the towns. Above St.-Wray the castle of Crussol, most majestic of the ruined chateau forts of the Rhone, stands on its granitic peak battered but still defiant in its losing battle with the elements and the ages.
Seen in the distance from Valence the grim old chateau cloaks itself in the blue haze and bulks out of the hills in all the insolence of its ancient strength. And it, like the leaning tower and the Chateau de Papillon, is part of Valence. The weaver who can sit in his own doorstep and look at these landmarks aglow with the romance of the setting sun or fading into new mysteries in the twilight can smile forgivingly at the impatient antiquarians who would tell him that “Valence has no important monuments.”