( Originally Published 1926 )
FROM Quillan to Foix the way is quite wonderful, but as different as can be from that of La Pierre-Lys. It climbs, climbs, climbs, till the blue mountains lie behind, and the black mountains lie in front, and one feels as though one were looking down over a great relief map of the district. So grey it is, too, even the grass parched and colourless. We are on an upland plateau, a place of pasturage and wide sweeping views. But still to the south, high and formidable as ever, rise the mountains, the outer battlements of that eternal barrier which nature has raised between France and Spain.
It must have been soon after this that we entered a long avenue, and saw, crowning a huge black rock far away. on our left, the Castle of Foix.
Ever since, as a little girl, my father used to tell me stories of the Comte de Foix, I had longed to see his castle. Again and again I had pictured it, and, strangely enough, the reality differed little from my fancy. It is just the sort of castle a child would draw, with its three towers rising from the sudden rock, which dominates the town and valley like some giant's fortress. There it stands, the old cradle of that race which played so romantic a part in the fourteenth century.
It was quite hopeless to think of sleep without making some attempt to explore the fortress; so, as there was still an hour before dinner, we crossed the bridge and found our way up through the narrow streets of the town, to the foot of the Rocher de Foix. By the time we had passed the Palais de Justice—once the site of that portion of the castle where the Counts dwelt in their rare intervals of peace, the sun had set, and it was in the gathering twilight that we climbed the rock and entered the fortifications. The gate was opened by a little girl.
" Is it too late to see the castle? " She looked shyly at me. " I do not know," she said. " Grand-father! Grandfather! "
At her call there came out of a cottage, which had replaced the gatehouse of former days, a very old man. He was toothless as a baby, and as he moved I heard his joints creaking. Positively, he looked so old, that one almost wondered whether he were not the original porter of Gaston Phoebus, risen from his grave to do the honours of his former home.
" Come, come! " said he, hurrying us forward. " There is still light enough to see the view from the Round Tower. You will not have seen anything finer in France, I warrant you."
We followed the tottering old creature across the courtyard, where the Sire d'Albret and his two brothers used to pace up and down, waiting for the ransom which was to set them at liberty, till we reached the end of the rock from which rises the great Round Tower, where are the guard-rooms with their enormous chimneys, and in the base of which is the condemned cell.
" See," said the old man eagerly, pointing downward from the loophole, " that is where the scaffold was raised, just where the fair is held, over there, by the Promenade de Villote. It was admirably arranged. From his cell the prisoner could watch all the preparations! " and he rubbed his hands and laughed his cackling laugh.
" What about this door? " inquired my husband; " it seems to have been burned."
" A prisoner, Monsieur, Jacques Latour. Ha! ha! He did not like the view from the window. His bed was of straw; why not burn down the door, and in the confusion try to escape? But it was useless. He might have known that prisons are not opened that way."
All up the narrow staircase the old fellow mumbled on about the various battles which had raged round the base of the rock. And when he reached the top I thought we, should never come down again; in defiance of all evidence, every dramatic episode in the history of the Counts of Foix had, according to him, taken place in or around that castle.
" Gaston Phoebus? Ah, it was he who built this great tower. You can see the arms of his mother, Eleanor de Comminges, in the vaulting. Born there? To be sure, where should a Comte de Foix be born but in the midst of his people. It was a sad day for Foix when the race came to an end."
" He was very rich, I have heard."
" Rich, Madame? I believe you. At the time of his death he had a million gold crowns in his coffers. And he knew how to use his riches too. Even King Charles himself had not such a Court as the Count held at Marzeres. Why, when the King arrived to visit him on one occasion, he was met by bands of nobles disguised as drovers, bringing herds of splendid sheep, oxen, and horses, all with silver bells round their necks; a present worth having, eh, Monsieur? When the King visited Montpellier they did not treat him in such a manner! "
" And where did the Count get his money? "
" Not from his peasants, Madame. They had nothing to complain of from him. Some say he was an alchemist, and knew the secret of making gold. Certainly he knew many things, the Count of Foix. He was a great musician, par exemple, and a writer, even a poet. But for myself, I do not think he made the gold. No, he took it from his enemies. See what a ransom the Comte d'Armagnac and the Comte de Comminges paid him."
" There are curious stories about him," said I. " I have heard that he had a familiar spirit who kept him informed of things which happened at a distance."
The old man's head nodded up and down 'with delight.
" Ah, they talk of that even in England, do they? " he said, glancing round mysteriously into the shadowy corners of the room we were leaving, for we had quitted the Round Tower, and were in the great square donjon keep. " It still comes at night. I often hear it, but I cannot understand what it says."
This was quite interesting, forming, as it did, a thrilling sequel to Froissart's well-known story. But when he went on to speak of the death of young Gaston, the Count's only son, I felt bound to stop him.
" Froissart says that happened at Orthes," I remarked. The old man looked at me.
" Froissart? " he repeated. " And who may he be? Which is likely to know best—I who live in the castle and know every stone of it, or a man who, as likely as not,' has never seen the place? "
" He thought he had it on good authority."
" Authority? And what's authority? " chimed in the old fellow indignantly. " I don't tell you the story on authority, I tell you what I know, what every man in Foix knows. The young Lord Gaston died in the castle here, as likely as not in this very room." -
Well, and I was willing enough to believe, so, as we stood in one of the dark chambers, he repeated the old story, perhaps one of the most pitiful stories in all history. It differed little from the account given to Froissart by the knight, Sir Espaign du Lyon. Both dwell on the boy's anxiety to reconcule his father and mother.
" He couldn't bear to see them apart," said the old man, for no doubt he loved them both."
Then once more I heard the tale of Gaston's visit to his uncle, the King of Navarre, and of the mysterious black powder which was given to him, and which was to bring the Count and his wife together; of the Count's suspicions, the poisoned dog, and finally of the boy's dying of grief and starvation, possibly here, as the guardian said, in the very room in which we stood.
" If you will come up tomorrow morning," said the old man, as we said good-bye at the gate, " I will tell you about Simon de Montfort coming to besiege the castle. Ha, he could do nothing! And there was King Philip the Bold, who began to undermine it. That was the only time it was ever taken. The garrison thought the towers would fall and bury them alive, so they gave it up. Fools, as though any one could undermine the Rocher de Foix! But come to-morrow, Madame, and come early. There are stories enough to last all day."
I told him we were starting for Toulouse on the morrow.
" A pity! " he said. " A pity! It would take you a week to know Foix. But in these days of automobiles no one stops to see a place thoroughly."
Then, still talking, he opened the gate, and we found ourselves outside the castle wall. We stumbled down the rock in the dusk, and made our way through the dimly-lighted streets, across which the ghostly old houses were nodding at each other, till we reached the Church of Saint Volusian, the patron and martyr of Foix. It was dark and empty, but we were glad to rest for a few minutes and think over all we had heard. And as we sat there, out of the blackness grew many scenes which had taken place in this old church itself—among them the gorgeous service when Gaston Phoebus and the Comte d'Armagnac, then young and handsome, made their peace and embraced each other in the presence of the Bishop, and of the other lords of Foix and Beam.