( Originally Published 1926 )
THE latter part of the journey to Cahors leads across a strange, wild country—the Quercy. The very name suggests battles and skirmishes, for this part of France was specially infested by those lawless bands who devastated the land during the Hundred Years' War. As we pass over it, it still has the appearance of a great battlefield. The scanty tufts of scorched grass fail to conceal the chalky soil which, cropping up here and there, looks like the whitened bones of a long-dead army. To add to the grim effect, the sky was lurid with storm. As we raced along over the high white road we could see lightning flashing from cloud to cloud, while thunder boomed and rolled as though we were surrounded by vast phantom artillery. Our good car seemed as anxious as we to reach shelter before the storm broke, and, girding up her loins, fairly flew before the wind. Faster and faster came the storm, and faster, faster we raced, till, dropping into a wooded valley, we came upon Cahors, lying beside the Lot, with its strange towered bridge.
Finding it useless to follow us, the storm had sulkily given up the chase. By the time dinner was over, a few stars were trying to come out, and we wandered down over the bridge to the ancient fountain which lies at the foot of the rocks, and which probably gave its first name to the town—Divona Caducorum. Then back we walked, up the dark Allee des Soupirs, to the dimly lighted Cathedral, where we sat in the gloom, thinking of Henry of Navarre and those terrible days when he fought his way step by step into Cahors, leaving dead and dying behind him. So fierce was the struggle that once his Generals advised him to retire. " My retreat from this town," cried the King, " will be that of my soul from my body! " and he continued to fight on.
Cahors was the birthplace of Pope John XXII. The tower of his castle still stands in the upper town. All the morning we travelled beneath a cloudless sky, between meadows scattered with purple crocus, and little yellowing woods of beech and chestnut. Somewhere, I remember, geese in a donkey cart hissing out naughty words to us as we ran past. There were many sheep too on the road, black and white sheep marked like fox terriers, and a pair of oxen yoked together, one wanting to go one way, the other the opposite, which delayed us for a time. And under the grey wall of a church was a goose market, the birds tied round the neck with bows of various coloured ribbons. But mostly we ran on, for we were anxious to reach Les Eyzies by nightfall.
The valleys wound one into another, becoming wilder and more desolate, till at last we all fell silent; it seemed as though we were going into the presence of something unknown and barbarous —something that filled us with a vague horror.
The sky had become overcast, full of strange enigmatic clouds, which hid the sun and cast weird shadows. For a while this country continued, and never a village or a human soul to be seen. Then a sudden turn, and before us lay the most astounding valley. On either side of the river, the Vezere has laid down a narrow strip of wild land, scattered with debris from the `cliffs above. And these cliffs! How can one believe, far less describe them? Limestone, worn into fantastic caverns and galleries, roofed with overhanging eaves. In the gathering dusk it suggests the street of some ancient deserted town, with nodding gables and tottering walls. Now and again a dark opening shows where some prehistoric householder had his dwelling. Once a mighty terrace, completely overshadowed by the rock above, hinted the possibility of a whole clan having sheltered there in bygone days.
Here we found Les Eyzies, still a rock village, with an inn and a landlord of almost neolithic description. Indeed, his aspect was so terrifying that I scarcely stopped to hear that the inn was full, before we were off again for the little town called Le Bugue, which lies further down the river, and which, though less romantic, is more sanitary and civilised. It was therefore next morning that we really saw Les Eyzies... .
The little village we found lying in a lonely valley some ten kilometres away—an ancient place, with a twelfth-century church. And here we came upon our friend, Monsieur Hauser, with three archeological savants from Paris, to whom he was explaining and exhibiting his palaeolithic finds. The trenches he had opened all over this district had yielded a great number of flint implements, bone ornaments, and at least one skeleton of the very oldest race who ever lived in the valley of the Vezere. The shelter, where this hairy ancestor of ours dwelt, is filled with sand and layers of petrified mud, so that it would take an archeologist of some experience to guess the possibility of a human dwelling. Yet there it was, and there lay the skeleton, probably that of a great chief, or he would not have been buried with those possessions of his around him. We gazed fascinated at the half-covered heap of bones, from which part of the skull, with the teeth still perfect and complete, protruded. The learned men were talking together, and I was glad. Here I had reached the very oldest of my castles; anything between fifty and two hundred and fifty' thousand years, M. Hauser assured us, had passed since this old chief had been laid to rest. While he had been sleeping there, the whole history of the world had taken place. It made me giddy and ,faint. I pictured this valley, and the enormous river which once ran down it, grinding out the sides, and forming the strange terraces which rose tier above tier. The water must have found out the soft places in the rock, for it had worn them into caves and galleries_ Yes, it was Nature herself who built the first castle for this early Gaulish chief to inhabit.
These cliffs on the Vetere must have been some of the first in which man took refuge shortly after that spell of cold weather, which I could hear M. Hauser alluding to as the Glacial Period. Man was always a chilly mortal, and these shelters and caves faced south. They were also near the river, in which there were fish, and there were great forests at hand full of game. So it was here that he made one of his first settlements, for he found it an altogether desirable place to live in, easy to defend, and comfortable as comfort then went. By degrees, as he grew more cunning than they, he turned out the bears and hyenas who had formerly lived there, and took possession of the shelters and caves. That was the inauguration of the " Castle of Le Moustier."
We can realise one of these earliest of men, as we saw him represented in a striking picture in the Illustrated London News some years ago. He was hairy, was he not? Short in the leg, long in the arm, walking with rounded back and bent knees, as I have seen Caliban represented on the stage by modern actors. His brows, too, overhung his fierce eyes, and he had very little chin to minimise the prominence of his teeth. He probably would not have welcomed -a stranger any more cordially than his descendants of last night. But doubtless the suspicion would have been mutual. I don't think any of us would have wished to spend the evening in his shelter, watching while he gnawed the bones of his prey, cracking them afterwards to suck out the marrow.
For thousands of years after this Homo Mousteriensis Hauseri—for we may as well give him his full title—breathed his last the history of the " Chateau du Moustier " must have been much as the history of any other primitive savage village. There were quarrels and fights with other chiefs, and many times, no doubt, the shelter changed owners. They lived by trapping beasts in such traps as M. Hauser will show us, and they hunted with stones and slings, and presently began to use even bows and arrows. They had workshops for the making of these instruments, where they sat round a great rock table, chipping away at flints, while the artists of the party carved pictures on bone and sang the rude sagas of the time. But the development of even this amount of civilisation required ages; yet every gain made the next step easier, and so progress went steadily forward, faster and faster. During the next few thousand years they found out the use of dogs in hunting, the advantages of riding on horseback, and the wild boar and wolf succeeded the mammoth and the elephant. Then man discovered how to make cups and basins from clay, took to polishing and finishing his weapons, began to plant and sow. And thus these early dwellers at Le Moustier passed from palseolithic to neolithic times. Then at last, from the south or the east, some wandering hunter brought home a wonderful knife of bronze, and the news spread in the neighbourhood of the mighty deeds he was able to perform with it. So it was admired and copied and improved upon, till stone implements came to be regarded as old-fashioned and out-of-date, and were finally abandoned, save for ceremonial purposes. And the women of Vezere left off their necklaces of shells and teeth, and took to the fashionable bronze beads which were being worn, only retaining their ancient ornaments as amulets and charms.
And the ages passed. Caves succeeded mere shelters, iron replaced bronze. But women were still courted by being knocked over the head and run off with; old people were killed when they could no longer work; the strong lived, the weakly died; civilisation still progressed by the simple means of the survival of the fittest.
I was thinking of all this as I looked at the ancient thing which had once been a man, when, happening to turn, I saw at the bottom of the deep hole whence they had taken him, a little green frog. He had fallen in, and was much perturbed in his tiny mind as to how he should get out again. No one took any notice of him. He was alive! If he had been dead and petrified for fifty thousand years or so, like Homo Mousteriensis, the archeologists would have had him up in a moment, and gone mad about him! But the sight of the poor little beast, struggling so eagerly for his life, interested no one but myself... .
On the way back from Le Moustier we saw, high up in a cliff, the finest of all the cave dwellings. From an archeological point of view it may not be so interesting as the " Chateau du Moustier," for I dare say it is not more than eight or ten thousand years since it was first inhabited. But it is infinitely impressive. We clambered up the face of the rock, clinging to the bushes, brambles, tufts of grass, till we found ourselves in a deep, level gallery, running along like a veritable street. Here and there it had evidently been excavated farther back—one recess, which may once have been the chapel of some hermit, bearing the name of the Oratory of Saint Christopher. As we were walking along this extraordinary place we suddenly came upon a young girl. I say a girl, for she was not a boy, but:;he had little in common with what we generally mean by the word. Indeed, there was something startling about her wild, dark, matted hair, and restless, furtive, almost animal, eyes.
" What do you call this place? " I asked, and I had to repeat the question more than once before the girl understood.
" It is the Gaulish city," she answered in a queer, rough patois that seemed to correspond with the place.
" And do you live in a cave? " I asked, smiling.
But the girl only glared suspiciously at me, and turning away into one of the darker recesses of the gallery, disappeared.
At La Haute Laugerie we again met Monsieur Hauser, who took us to see the most ancient of all his excavations—a palaeolithic dwelling, the shelter of which was destroyed before the caves in the cliff opposite were even formed... .
" And do you think these peasants of the Vezere are the actual descendants of the old dwellers in the caves and shelters? " I asked.
"Naturally," said he. "Why not? There is probably no break in the continuity which links them to the man whose skeleton you saw at Le Moustier."
" How horrible! " I ejaculated involuntarily. " Horrible? But why? "
"He was so dead, so utterly, hopelessly dead. Do you think they will ever be as dead as that? "
" Assuredly," replied he, laughing, "if the world lasts another fifty thousand years."