The Norman Home Of The Bruce

The name of Bruce is so intimately, so particularly, so inseparably associated with Scotland that it is scarcely possible to think of it as ever having been anything but Scotch. No other stands so markedly for antagonism to Norman-English things. The name of Bruce is representative of Scotland. Yet the Bruces were really Norman, and here in the Cotentin is the place from which they came. A Robert Bruce crossed with William to the Conquest, and was granted lands in Yorkshire. A later Bruce became a friend of King David of Scotland and was by him given Scottish possessions. The father of the greatest of all Bruces was a friend of Edward the First. That greatest of the Bruces was also, like his father, a friend of King Edward, and a trusted adviser, and long wavered between the Scotch and English sides. Indeed, it was only a sort of belated comprehension of his practical interests that made him finally throw in his lot with Scotland.

And here in Normandy is the village of Bruce; and that it was the birthplace of such a mighty line makes it of fascinating charm. But the finding of the village was not easy, for it was unbaedekered, and is spelled, quite unexpectedly, “Brix”; and even after discovering the village the finding of the remains of the Bruce castle was also matter of diffi culty. In fact, it occurred to me that if the enemies of the early Bruces had half the difficulty in finding their stronghold that I experienced, they were pretty safe from intrusion, except from the persevering!

I found Brix in the course of some drives that I took from the town of Valognes-a town that is reached by a short railway ride from Cherbourg.

I chose Valognes because the map showed it to be a good starting-point for drives, but perhaps its close association with William the Conqueror had something to do with it, too, for William, some years before the battle of Hastings, was near Valognes when he received news of an uprising that had his own capture as its aim, whereupon his court fool advised him to forget his dignity and flee, and he “took a fool’s advice”-a phrase that has remained colloquially in the English language-and barely escaped with his life. And it is among the many ironic facts of history that William would never have lived to be a Conqueror had it not been for the prompt urgency of a fool!

Valognes is itself a typical, pleasant spot, with an old church, an old marketplace, surrounded by houses not so old, and some really ancient houses tucked away along the course of a brook that goes deviously, out of sight and in sight alternately, under streets, or between the back doors of these ancient structures, , lapping gravely against mossgrown steps. So very much is moss-grown in the Cotentin !

At Valognes I inquired where I could find a horse and driver, and was referred to a prosperous farmer in the outskirts of the town, who met my suggestion with cordiality, and led me with pride, which was barely repressed exultation, to his stableful of horses. “Choose, monsieur, sil vous plait!” And I chose; and his eyes twinkled pleasantly when I picked a well-set-up bay. He hitched it to a twowheeled high-seated cart, and thus charioted we set forth to bowl over miles and miles of the countryside.

Rich farmer though he was, as a matter of course I spoke of payment, and as a matter of course he met me naturally and named his price-some two dollars a day for himself and outfit. It is always best for a traveler to speak of payment for any service, and to do so in advance. The supposed delicacy, which is merely finicalness, which makes one fear to speak of money, has led to many an unpleasant misunderstanding. People are seldom displeased with the idea of receiving money for services rendered. I have heard warnings, in various parts of both England and America, against asking a price or even offering to pay, but I have yet to find the man who-having expressed a willingness to do a service; not, of course, a service by a friend for a friend-has been offended by a frank offer of money. Rather, a man would be offended by the failure to offer it! But, naturally, offense could easily be given and taken by an offensive way of speaking of this subject.

The Valognes farmer was intelligent, fine of face, large and well formed of body; in these respects a typical Cotentin peasant, who are a good-looking, large framed, intelligent folk. He was anxious to oblige me and frankly curious as to what I wanted to see and learn; and both the obligingness and the curiosity came largely from naive interest in me as a stranger and an American.

He drove without protest, although sometimes with mild wonder, in whatever direction I indicated. I had supplied myself with a local map, but when I did not indicate he chose the roads himself. And such charming roads! Such delightful old houses! Such hospitality!-for he knew everybody, was acquainted or related everywhere, and everywhere we were treated as honored guests.

He was not garrulous, but was ready to talk when he saw that he was pleasing me, and his concern when I did not precisely catch his meaning was almost touching! And whenever, on one side or the other, we came to an impasse, it was a matter of carefully aiming words at each other till one of us hit the mark and mutual understanding resulted with also resultant glee.

Now and then there was use for the invaluable dictionary; as when he referred to a tree, looking like an American beech, as what sounded like an “ate”; whereupon seeing that I did not catch it, he took the book and turned its pages, first in confidence, then with growing doubt, finally with longfaced certainty of failure. “I cannot find it, moi!” And at length, “But no, it is not here!” His face perceptibly drooped as he handed the book back to me. His disappointment was great. Not for an instant did he, as the average American would do were the circumstances reversed, seem to think that the fault or the shortcoming lay with the stranger who had not learned the language. His regret was only that he could not make me understand. It was unthinkable! It was a calamity!

Taking back the dictionary, I looked under “beech,” and found that it was “hetre”-but I assuredly did not let him know that he missed the spelling when he had looked only under the “e’s,” as I had noticed that he was doing! After all, he was only making an error similar in character to that of the distinguished American lawyer who, preparing to crush his opponent with the dictionary meaning of “wholesome,” looked in vain under the “h’s.”

It was a day of uncertain glory, for now the sky was clear and the landscape was the perfection of delightfulness, and now there were flying clouds and showers of gusty rain. For it rains very easily in lower Normandy.

The men whistling to their horses to guide them as they hauled or ploughed, the tiny canals for irrigation, criss-crossing the fields, the stone-walled pools of green-scummed water, with their great aspect of age, the brimming little streams suddenly expanding into shallow ponds, and then, as if in panic at their own daring, as suddenly closing in again, the fruit trees, the splendid hedges, the cattle browsing drowsily, the tiny school house, with a noise issuing from it as of the droning of an immense hive of bees, but caused by the children studying aloud, the little slopes, the winding valleys, the men belted with scarfs of red and wearing wooden shoes stuffed with straw, the roadside walls, so covered with the gradual accumulation of the dust of centuries as often quite to hide the stone and make the walls, with moss and flowers and vines and shrubs and trees growing richly out of them, seem like walls of earth alone this was fascinating in itself, and even more fascinating when met in the course of an expedition to Brix.

I did not try to go straight to the place; I wanted to see other places too, and to see the entire countryside in the most charming way, and so we twisted and circled about, mainly along retired roads, away not only from railway points, but also from any diligence route, for in that way I found a country with its characteristics unaltered by contact with strangers.

Now and then we came to some little village, and then it was a pleasure to go into the little inn, and sit down at a little table while the cheerful landlord-or more often landlady!-set forth some simple refreshment; and always my companion, like the other farmers and peasants of the Cotentin that I had noticed, used his own knife, and did not care for fork or spoon. Doubtless, the men who went to the Conquest ate likewise with knives alone!

At every inn it is expected, as a matter of course, that coffee and cognac will be ordered; wine, indeed, may be, or cider, but even so the coffee and cognac will almost be a matter of course as well. Coffeeand-cognac is the typical drink of the region. The cognac is very coarse; it is practically unrectified spirits; it seems strong enough to kill a live man or bring to life a dead one, and yet, somehow, I did not notice any one affected by it. And, after all, I remembered that I had seen the mountaineers of Georgia and the Carolinas drink unstintedly of stark moonshine without apparent effect.

Always the cognac and the coffee are taken together. The man who takes cognac without coffee or coffee without cognac is rather disapprovingly known for miles around as a curiosity. The coffee itself is largely chicory-but even the coffee of Paris is that!-and both cognac and coffee together cost but a few coppers for the twofold tipple, the double drink.

Our real luncheon that day, as distinguished from the numerous tastes and snacks, was at an inn at the very edge of an alluring forest, and we sat on a bench beside the table, at the door, and the repast was a savory compound of I know not what ingredients that had boiled and bubbled in a great caldron that was twice as large as the little stove that upheld it.

Even more interesting than the inns are the country homes, the houses of the farmers, mossywalled, mossy-thatched or tiled, nestled beside little streams or ponds, shaded by tall trees that are ivy-clad to their summits or thick-balled with mistletoe or made marvelously grotesque by the pollarding of many generations.

The white-capped farmer’s wife gives a cheerful welcome; the farmer himself will probably within a little while appear. The room we enter is large and low; the floor is of cement or, more likely, merely hard-packed earth; the ceiling is beamed with oak that is black with age; there are shining rows of copper pots and pans.

In such a house, of the prosperous sort, there may be a four-post bed standing right on the floor of earth; there may be an ancient eight-foot clock; there maybe a great carved ancient time-darkened cupboard.

An open fireplace in the kitchen serves for the household cooking, and in front of the fire the dog, the yellow cat (a feature of rural Normandy), perhaps even a few chickens, are gathered in fraternal friendship.

It is this getting at the heart of things that gives the keenest zest to travel; one realizes how much is gained by getting away from the usual, and by seeing a country in an unusual way. It is among my pleasantest memories, this driving about in out-of-the-way corners of Lower Normandy, partly with definite aims as to destination and in part just for the general pleasure of it. Had it been only to reach Brix, so I found afterward, I could have taken a local train out of Cherbourg, stopped at the station a mile from Brix and walked up, as indeed I did in the course of another visit in another year-for I came so to love the country as to like to get back again. But this first visit, this driving about for the pure joy of it, with only now and then a fixed objective, remains in my memory as an experience of singular charm. And this part of the Cotentin, round about Valognes, has more of intrinsic attractiveness than the sterner portion around Greville and toward the Nez de j obou rg.

Great black and white magpies flitted across the roads; often I saw the robin, the rouge-gorge; there was a glory of flowers and greenery; there were roses paramount in beauty-somehow, one comes to expect roses in bloom at any time of the year in France! Many a road rises above the general level of the land and many a road runs felicitously below, between banks topped by wall and hedge. The stone cottages of the humbler folk, the wagons topped with cloth of green, the washed clothes drying on the hedges that were flaming with flowers of pink or yellow-everything was a delight.

It struck me as curious that, in spite of the warlike reputation of these people, there is no great abundance of castles evident; there are some parts of Europe where one is continually impressed by the frequency and the greatness of the strongholds, but the general Cotentin castles were rather small and were long ago pretty much quarried away for building stone to meet peaceful needs, and it is comparatively seldom that one still finds where the splendor falls on castle walls.

The thatched roofs of the countryside are, too, a never-ceasing delight, weathered and mossed into subtly harmonizing shades of green and yellow and red and brown and black; and that thatched roofs are now forbidden to be made, on account of fire danger, adds additional interest, for thus they become of the things that must pass away. And one finds that the peasantry are shrewd as well as picturesque; for although thatch roofs are now forbidden, the repairing of thatch roofs with thatch is still allowed, and here and there you find a cottage which has secured a needed new thatch roof in the course of judiciously separated periods of repair!

At length, after hours of devious driving, we turned toward Brix, and we drove along a lonely road and through a great wood, and there came anew, as there had come at other times that day, a sense of wonder that there should be so much of solitude in a region of good soil, richly farmed, which has been for so many centuries settled.

The solitude was broken as we turned a bend, for two old women were walking toward us with huge bundles of faggots, twice their size, upon their backs; they walked slow and stoopingly, now and then rising painfully erect for a moment’s rest as they tipped the huge bundles back on a roadside log or bank. And yet the crones looked happy!

At length, up a winding road, with an ascent so gentle that one is later astonished by the far-spread view, and we are at Brix.

The village itself gives at first a certain sense of disappointment, for its houses, rather plain and modern, do not measure up to expectations connected with a glorious name;-and then one realizes that this adds to the dramatic sense of it; the fact that this ordinary little village, not nearly so attractive as many another Norman village, should be the cradle of the mighty Bruces. And one sees, too, that the village, with its plain stone houses set closely about the edges of a bare and open square, closely resembles villages in Scotland and northern England; it is closely remindful of Norham, built in the shadow of a mighty Norman castle on the Scottish border.

After the first dash of disappointment one also sees that there is something of peculiar interest here: a very old church, not large, but of very unusual shape; for it is built with four wings of equal size standing out from a central square, above this centre rising a small and ancient square-sided tower. There is the tiniest of tiny galleries, reached, oddly enough, by an outside stairway, and as if one outside stairway were not enough for one little church, there is another one also, this second stair leading above the body of the building and into the tower. And the stone steps of both these stairs are smoothhollowed by the footsteps of generations and grayed and mossed with age.

Looking at the church, it suddenly flashes upon one that its shape (that of a crux decussata) is that of the St. Andrew’s Cross, the cross of Scotland!more than a coincidence, this, one thinks, in the home of the Bruce; surely some early Bruce had this church thus built to symbolize his Scotch glories and affiliations. Not, of course, but that other churches have been built in this unusual shape, but that in this case there was most likely the Scottish reason for it.

There comes to me, in particular-for I have more than once visited Brix-the memory of an Easter Sunday, when this church was plethoric with whitecapped women and black-bloused men, sex sitting strictly apart from sex; with one priest to officiate and another at the organ; and with two whitegowned laymen, metamorphosed from the farm, blowing on long brass horns, their heads angled awkwardly forward and their eyes starting, as they not only jointly blew, but jointly read their music from an ancient-looking book, arm-long.

Where the graveyard has long gathered its dead under the walls of the church there rises an “if” tree, a mighty yew, extravagant of shape, preposterous of convolution. “It is a very, very old tree,” said one of the priests, walking with me there after the service. “It is much older than the graveyard, and this old graveyard is older than the old church. Perhaps-who knows!-perhaps it is as old as the castle!”

One of the strong impressions that remains with me has nothing to do with a Bruce; it is but an inscription on an humble stone above a woman’s grave. “Infinite regrets “-that is all, except the name of the woman. “Infinite regrets “-indicative, that, of a sorrow deeper than could be expressed by loquacity of gravestone grief.

Although the village houses are but ordinary, there is, at the edge of the village, an old-time manor-house, large, almost stately, almost impressive, and in its rambling garret I found, and secured for five francs, a splendid Norman milk jug-one of the big brass jugs such as milk-girls carry on their shoulders, and of which models, of all sizes, little and big, are offered, brand new, to the visitors to Cherbourg. Few things are more interesting and more satisfactory than to secure beautiful and typical articles in the very regions where they’have been made and used for centuries.

Unless one should specially inquire and urgently search, he would not see what remains of the ancient castle. It is off at one side from the village, and reached by narrow and seemingly purposeless roads.

The ruins are on a hilltop from which there is a fair and radiant view, stretching off to shadowy forest and duskily remote mystery.

Considered merely as ruins, never were ruins more triflingly fragmentary than those of Bruce. The original castle seems to have been nearly destroyed, and another, centuries ago, raised upon its foundations, only to be itself captured, dismantled, deserted, destroyed. Likely enough the ancient church is built of castle stone; likely enough the village houses were similarly castle-built; it having often been found convenient for practical needs to have a supply of shaped and squared stones ready to hand, and it thus coming to pass, in many a place in Europe, that the peasants sit in the seats of the mighty.

Here and there, at the Bruce ruins, is a bit of foundation wall, projective through rich green turf, and by dint of patient study the outlines of the ancient structure may still be traced, though the remains are quite too fragmentary to identify the early architecture or even find a rounded Norman arch. Along one side may still be found the line of the moat, and on the other side is the edge of the hill and a precipitous dropping away toward a hurrying brook, far below, that is half hidden among greenery.

In the cliff-like bank I found an opening into a subterranean apartment and passage, and there I found an inscription, evidently a copy of an inscription far more ancient, telling, in ecclesiastical Latin, that all this was the land of the Bruce (spelling it here “Bruis”), from the forest to the church, according to the charter of Henry II. Apparently, the Bruces retained their Norman possessions at least a century after the Conquest, and England retained the sovereignty of Normandy not only to the reign of Henry II, but to that of King John-John Lackland; whom one recognizes under the delightful name of Jean sans Terre, as they call him -who lost it to France.

I went along the passage, down a flight of mouldy steps of stone, then a little distance farther and down a slope, and there found the passage, still descendent, so narrow, so black, so choked with debris that to pass farther would be impossible unless with destruction of clothes and with moiling of the hardest. “It goes for many metres,” says, quietly, the old peasant who has hoveringly accompanied me and who now comes closely up.

Does he know anything of it? But no! “Moi, I cannot say. It was here before my father’s day, before my grandfather’s!” Clearly, to him history can mean nothing more distant than that.

But one does not want such a passage at the Norman castle of Bruce explained, accounted for, made plain. There is much in Europe that must be learned, many a date and fact that must needs be acquired, but happily there is also much that can be left as it is, with its interest dependent upon precisely what is visible.

At Brix there are other mementoes of the past than a church, a graveyard, the remnant of a ruin, for there are old-time Norman customs, beliefs, superstitions. The superstitions are of less grave character than some I came across in the bleak region of the Cotentin, along the coast, where the fisher folk tell whisperingly of the ghosts of the drowned and of powers direful. Here at Brix, in the midst of a rich and a smiling Cotentin region, not only are the beliefs of a lighter character, but most of them, such as that concerning the ill-luck of breaking a mirror, are the common property of the superstitious of the world. I noticed with interest, too, the superstition in regard to the overturning of the salt, for that is a belief which has persisted throughout the world for so many centuries, and can at least be traced to the legendary overturning of the salt by Judas at the Last Supper.

The tale of the priest who, having hidden away wrongfully acquired money, denied it with vehemence, is typical of the mild lengths to which local superstition goes. The priest, still denying, cried at length: “The devil take me if I have the money!” Whereat the devil promptly appeared in person and personally conducted him away. “And,” said an old woman gravely, “once a year, still, after all these many years, the devil appears and again takes the wicked priest away. You have but to be at the right place at the right moment and you will see!”

A buzzing in the right ear means good fortune, whereas-so slight a difference in this world so often marking the difference between good and evil!-a similar buzzing in the left ear bodes something ill. If a chimney draws poorly and the smoke comes pouring out into the room, “There is money coming,” you will be told. And yet, as a peasant said to me with humorous deprecation, when a puff of smoke came out of his fireplace: “Often has the smoke done thus, and still the money has not come! ”

Weddings are times of prideful display, with plenty of simple fun and homely jesting. A bright day is hoped for, as it is the world over; here they say: “Rain is bad, for it means for the bride a lifetime of tears.”

The wedding party walk to the church. The bride is dressed in black, but sometimes wears a veil of white lace. Guns are fired as the party start back to the home, and the guns are hymeneally celebrant later, too, as a means of enforcing a welcome for the uninvited, and some prefer to be of the uninvited because they find a great deal of enjoyment in making a tremendous firing din outside and then going in with a sort of triumphant and conquering glory.

It is still the custom for some young man to crawl beneath the table at the wedding feast and possess himself of the bride’s garter, and as this has been regularly done for centuries, any bride with Cotentin self-respect would feel really slighted were there no young man daring enough to do this; and it may be added that in anticipation of such a feat the bride always wears her garters below the knee!

Honi soit qui mal y pense!