France – Wraiths In The Moonlight

FREDERICK MISTRAL, in his story of the children of Provence who waited for the three glittering Magi, their golden-haired pages, and the “poor, hungry camels who had come so far,” voices with delicacy the sadness of lost ambitions, the plaint of those who fail in their quest for the unattainable. And in his picture of the enthusiasm that faded with the setting of the sun, of the doubt that grew as the chill winds found their way through the forests along the road to Arles, and of the weary home-coming, he limns with understanding art the whole story of the Lost Kingdom of Burgundy.

The kings are gone, over the mountain. Their golden empire has crumbled. The heritage of power has been partitioned between half a dozen countries. A county remains to bear in its name the epitaph of a kingdom.

It is natural to wonder what might have been the fate of Europe had this Burgundy lived, vigorous as the racial entity which it was for many a generation after the Merovingian domination, or artificially strengthened as it might have been in the empire of Charles the Bold. Certainly the buffer between the western and central portions of Europe would have been strong enough to keep them apart. Burgundy would have held the balance of power on the continent and, according to the map-makers who preached the virtues of buffer-states after the final error of the late Napoleon, should have insured a lasting peace. Yet some-how Burgundy, bull of the European china-shop, seems poorly cast in a pacifist role. Had Charles succeeded, would there be to-day a France, a Burgundy, and a Germany? Or would there be the spectacle of Burgundy and Germany battening on the carcass of France—or France and Burgundy picking the bones of Germany? Or would there be just Burgundy, more arrogant as ruler of a continent, still seeking affronts and hoping for battle’?

It seems to me that the answer may be read in the Golden Kingdom’s ruins : had the Valois dream come true, all Europe would have been Burgundy, or there would have been no Burgundy in Europe—which after all brings us around to things as they are. They were gamblers, these empire-builders of Flanders and the Cote d’Or, without fear enough to know when they were defeated, without intelligence enough to know when they should acknowledge superior authority; and when they tossed the red dice it was always for maximum stakes—all or nothing.

For the romance of the thing it is better probably that Charles the Bold was wrong in thinking himself an Alexander. Burgundy, alive and flourishing and standing forth as history’s finest example of national bad manners, might not be particularly interesting. Burgundy, the lost kingdom, a thing of moss-grown castles, and dimly echoing chansons and memories of chivalry and lady-worship and crusades and battles and misfit phantoms, is a charming place.

Who knows?—perhaps Queen Jeanne of the courts of love was a fat dullard who could not tell a good poem from bad. A modern minstrel does not care, for he sees only her lovely ghost, and that is airy and spirituelle as the ghosts of queens must always be. Philip the Good was quite free in expressing his opinion that King Rene, the royal troubadour, was a crazy old nincompoop, and, truth to tell, modern eyes are physically quite the same as Philip’s. But Rene’s chansons sound the better to us for having echoed down the aisles of some five centuries, and age is good for lutes and ghostly lute-playing. And so it is with all of them—the Amorous Duchess of Dijon, the Sleeping Monarchs of the Inland Isle, the Knight of the Holy Tear, Bertille of the Three Crowns, the Golden Knight of Crussol, the Dragon-Fighters of Provence, Nicolette of the Twinkling Feet, William of Orange—knights and ladies, minstrels and kings, crusaders, robbers, mendicants, courtezans, prelates, poets, macemen, heroes, and cutthroats—one may sit here under the beeches as the setting sun strikes across the crumbling walls of Beaune and see them pass in glittering review, splendid, awesome, majestic in the softening perspectives of once-upon-a-time. Romance is abroad among the roses, and one forgets that these folks must have been very trying neighbors when they were in the bloom of health.

The bells are booming in the old clochers. Wooden shutters are curtaining the arched fronts of the ancient shops. Vieillards are moving their rush-bottomed chairs out into the cobbled streets. Misshapen shadows are clambering up out of the moat. The spire of the hospice stands sharp against the sky like a gigantic hour-hand checked for ever in its course while pointing to high noon. And the wraiths of the queens are passing . . . passing. . . . Old Burgundy stirs itself in the twilight and breathes once more.

In the distance a young voice and an old song:

How many fair daughters have you? Girofle, Girofla,

How many fair daughters have you? Love will take count of them.

The sun sets, and the stars come out, and the cavernous streets teem with mystery. A modern minstrel with a shiny new lute feels suddenly out of place in such a setting. For these specters at his elbow are very real, and they will have none of him.

Moonlight is the great restorer of vanished kingdoms. On the hills rise the phantom donjons, towers of argent.

On the roads ride shining cavaliers in mail that makes no sound. In spectral bowers diaphanous ladies in conical caps and gossamer veils smile innocently enough at the impassioned songs of ghostly troubadours. . . . And so it will always be while there are romancers to marvel at Philippe Pot and sigh in sympathy with Rene and his dancing queen. . . . And so the old ghosts will always walk when the light is good and conditions favorable—on such a night as this.