Mont St. Michel
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
The promised rivers were before us. So was the Mont, spectral no longer, but nearing with every plunge forward of our sturdy young Percheron. Locomotion through any new or untried medium is certain to bring with the experiment a dash of elation. Now, driving through water appears to be no longer the fashion in our fastidious century; someone might get a wetting, possibly, has been the conclusion of the prudent. And thus a very innocent and exciting bit of fun has been gradually relegated among the lost arts of pleasure.
We were taking water as we had never taken it before, and liking the method. We were as wet as ducks, but what cared we? We were being deluged with spray; the spume of the sea was spurting in our faces with the force of a strong wet* breeze, and still we liked it. Besides, driving thus into the white foam of the waters, over the sand ridges, across the downs, into the wide plains of wet mud, this was the old classical way of going up to the Mont.
Surely, what had been found good enough as a pathway for kings, and saints and pilgrims should be good enough for lovers of old-time methods. The dike yonder was built for those who believe in the devil of haste, and for those who also serve him faithfully. . . .
With our first toss upon the downs, a world of new and fresh experiences began. Genets was quite right; the Mont over yonder was another country; even at the very beginning of the journey we learned so much. This breeze blowing in from the sea, that had swept the ramparts of the famous rock, was a double extract of the sea-essence; it had all the salt of the sea and the aroma of firs and wild flowers; its lips had not kissed a garden in high air without the perfume lingering, if only to betray them.
Even this strip of meadow marsh had a character peculiar to itself ; half of it belonged to earth and half to the sea. You might have thought it an inland pasture, with its herds of cattle, its flocks of sheep, and its colonies of geese patrolled by ragged urchins. But behold somewhere out yon-der the pasture was lost in high sea-waves; ships with bulging sails replaced the curve of the cattle's sides and instead of bending necks of sheep, there were sea-gulls swooping down upon the foamy waves.
As the incarnation of this dual life of sea and land, the rock stands. It also is both of the sea and the land. Its feet are of the waters—rocks and stones the sea-waves have used as playthings these millions of years. But earth regains possession as the rocks pile themselves into a mountain. Even from this distance, one can see the moving of great trees, the masses of yellow flower-tips that dye the sides of the stony hill, and the strips of green grass here and there.
So much has nature done for this wonderful pyramid in the sea. Then man came and fashioned it to his liking. He piled the stones at its base into titanic walls; he carved about its sides the rounded breasts of bastions; he piled higher and higher up the dizzy heights a medley of palaces, convents, abbeys, cloisters, to lay at the very top the fitting crown of all, a jewelled Norman-Gothic cathedral.
Earth and man have thrown their gauntlet down to the sea—this rock is theirs, they cry to the waves and the might of the oceans. And the sea laughs —as strong men laugh when boys are angry or insistent. She has let them build and toil, and pray and fight; it is all one to her what is done on the rock—whether men carve its stones into lace, or rot and die in its dungeons; it is all the same to her whether each spring the daffodils creep up within the crevices and the irises nod to them from the gardens.
It is all one to her. For twice a day she re-captures the Mont. She encircles it with the strong arm of her tides; with the might of her waters she makes it once more a thing of the sea.
The tide was rising now.
The fringe of the downs had dabbled in the shoals till they became one. We had left behind the last of the shepherd lads, come out to the edge of the land to search for a wandering kid. We were all at once plunging into high water. Our road was sunk out of sight; we were driving through waves as high as our cart wheels. . . .
Our cart still pitched and tossed—we were still rocked about in our rough cradle. But the sun, now freed from the banks of clouds, was lighting our way with a great and sudden glory. And for the rest of our watery journey we were conscious only of that lighting. Behind the Mont lay a vast sea of saffron. But it was in the sky; against it the great rock was as black as if the night were upon it.
Here and there, through the curve of a flying buttress, or the apertures of a pierced parapet, gay bits of this yellow world were caught and framed. The sea lay beneath like a quiet carpet; and over this carpet ships and sloops swam with easy gliding motion, with sails and cordage dipt in gold. The smaller craft, moored close to the shore, seemed transfigured as in a fog of gold. And nearer still were the brown walls of the Mont making a great shadow, and in the shadow the waters were as black as the skin of an African. In the shoals there were lovely masses of turquoise and palest green; for here and there a cloudlet passed, to mirror its complexion in the translucent pools. . . .
There was a rapid dashing beneath the great walls; a sudden night of darkness as we plunged through an open archway into a narrow village street; a confused impression of houses built in-to side-walls; of machicolated gateways; of rocks and roof-tops tumbling about our ears; and within the street was sounding the babel of a shrieking troop of men and women. Porters, peasants, and children were clamoring about our cartwheels like so many jackals. The bedlam did not cease as we stopt before a brightly-lit open doorway.
Then through the doorway there came a tall, finely featured brunette. She made her way through the yelling crowd as a duchess might cleave a path through a rabble. She was at the side of the cart in an instant. She gave us a bow and smile that were both a welcome and an act of appropriation. She held out a firm, soft, brown hand. When it closed on our own, we knew it to be the grasp of a friend, and the clasp of one who knew how to hold her world. But when she spoke the words were all of velvet, and her voice had the cadence of a caress.
"I have been watching you, `cheres dames'---crossing the `greve,' but how wet and weary you must be ! Come in by the fire, it is ablaze now—I have been feeding it for you !"
And once more the beautifully curved lips parted over the fine teeth, and the exceeding brightness of the dark eyes smiled and glittered in our own. The caressing voice still led us forward, into the great gay kitchen; the touch of skilful, discreet fingers undid wet cloaks and wraps; the soft charm of a lovely and gracious woman made even the penetrating warmth of the huge fire-logs a secondary feature of our welcome.
To those who have never crossed a "greve" who have had no jolting in a Normandy "char-a-bane " who, for hours, have not known the mixed pleasures and discomfort of being a part of sea-diver and who have not been met at the threshold of an Inn on a Rock by the smiling welcome of Madame Poulard—all such have yet a pleasant page to read in the book of traveled experience. . .
Altho her people were waiting below, and the dinner was on its way to the cloth, Madame Poulard had plenty of time to give to the beauty about her. How fine was the outlook from the top of the ramparts! What a fresh sensation, this of standing on a terrace in mid-air and looking down on the sea and across to the level shores. The rose vines—we found them sweet-"Ah"—one of the branches had fallen—she had full time to readjust the loosened support. And "Marianne, give these ladies their hot water, and see to their bags" -even this order was given with courtesy. It was only when the supple, agile figure had left us to fly down the steep rock-cut steps; when it shot over the top of the gateway and slid with the grace of a lizard into the street far below us, that we were made sensible of there having been any special need of madame's being in haste. .
The Mont proved by its appearance its history in adventure; it had the grim, grave, battered look that comes only to features—whether of rock or of more plastic human mold—that have been carved by the rough handling of experience.
It is the common habit of hills and mountains, as we all know, to turn disdainful as they grow skyward; they only too eagerly drop, one by one, the things by which man has marked the earth for his own. To stand on a mountain top and to go down to your grave are alike, at least in this—that you have left everything, except yourself, behind you. But it is both the charm and the triumph of Mont St. Michael, that it carries so much of man's handiwork up into the blue fields of the air; this achievement alone would mark it as unique among hills. It appears as if for once man and nature had agreed to work in concert to produce a ,masterpiece in stone. The hill and the architectural beauties it carries aloft, are like a taunt flung out to sea and to the upper heights of air; for centuries they appear to have been crying aloud, "See what we can do, against your tempests and your futile tides—when we try. . Rustic France along this coast still makes pilgrimages to the shrine of the Archangel St. Michael. No marriage is rightly arranged which does not include a wedding-journey across the "greve"; no nuptial breakfast is aureoled with the true halo of romance which is eaten elsewhere than on these heights in midair. The young come to drink deep of wonders; the old, to refresh the depleted fountains of memory; and the tourist, behold he is a plague of locusts let loose upon the defenseless hill !
It was impossible, after sojourning a certain time upon the hill, not to concede that there were two equally strong centers of attraction that drew the world hitherward. One remained, indeed, gravely suspended between the doubt and the fear, as to which of these potential units had the greater pull, in point of actual attraction. The impartial historian, given to a just weighing of evidence, would have been startled to find how invariably the scales tipped; how lightly an historical Mont, born of a miracle, crowned by the noblest buildings, a pious Mecca for saints and kings innumerable, shot up like feathers in lightness when over-weighted by the modern realities of a perfectly appointed inn, the cooking and eating of an omelet of omelets, and the all-conquering charms of Madame Poulard.
The fog of doubt thickened as, day after day, the same scenes were enacted; when one beheld all sorts of conditions of men similarly affected; when, again and again, the potentiality in the human magnet was proved true. Doubt turned to conviction, at the last, that the holy shrine of St. Michael had, in truth, been violated; that the Mont had been desecrated; that the latter exists now solely as a setting for a pearl of an inn; and that within the shrine-it is Madame Poulard herself who fills the niche !
Such a variety of brides as come up to the Mont ! You could have your choice, at the midday meal, of almost any nationality, age, or color. The at-tempt among these bridal couples to maintain the distant air of a finished indifference only made their secret the more open. The British phlegm, on such a journey, did not always serve as a convenient mask; the flattering, timid glance, the ripple of tender whispers, and the furtive touching of fingers beneath the table, made even these English couples a part of the great human marrying family; their superiority to their fellows would 'return, doubtless, when the honey had dried out of their moon.
The best of our adventures into this tender country were with the French bridal tourists; they were certain to be delightfully human. As we had had occasion to remark before, they were off, like ourselves, on a little voyage of discovery; they had come to make acquaintance with the being to whom they were mated for life. Various degrees of progress could be read in the air and manner of the hearty young "bourgeoises" and their paler or even ruddier partners, as they crunched their bread or sipped their thin wine. Some had only entered as yet upon the path of inquiry; others had already passed the mile-stone of criticism; and still others had left the earth and were floating in full azure of intoxication. Of the many wedding parties that sat down to breakfast, we soon made the commonplace discovery that the more plebeian the company, the more certain-orbed appeared to be the promise of happiness.
Madame Poulard's air with this, her world, was as full of tact as with the tourists. Many of the older women would give her the Norman kiss, solemnly, as if the salute were a part of the ceremony attendant on the eating of a wedding breakfast at Mont St. Michel. There would be a three times' clapping of the wrinkled or the ruddy peasant cheeks against the sides of Madame Poulard's daintier, more delicately modeled face. Then all would take their seats noisily at the table. It was Madame Poulard who would then bring us news of the party. At the end of a fortnight Charm and I felt ourselves to be in possession of the hidden and secret reasons for all the marrying that had been done along the coast that year. . .
One morning, as we looked toward Pontorson, a small black cloud appeared to be advancing across the bay. The day was windy; the sky was crowded with huge white mountains—round, luminous clouds that moved in stately sweeps. And the sea was the color one loves to see in an earnest woman's eye, the dark blue sapphire that turns to blue-gray. This was a setting that made that particular cloud, making such slow progress across from the shore, all the more conspicuous. Gradually, as the black mass neared the dike, it began to break and separate; and we saw plainly enough that the scattering particles were human beings.
It was, in point of fact, a band of pilgrims; a peasant pilgrimage was coming up to the Mont. In wagons, in market carts, in "char-a-banes," in donkey carts, on the backs of monster Percherons —the pilgrimage moved in slow processional dignity across the dike. Some of the younger black gowns and blue blouses attempted to walk across over the sands; we could see the girls sitting down on the edge of the shore, to take off their shoes and stockings and to tuck up their thick skirts. When they finally started they were like unto so many huge cheeses hoisted on stilts. The bare legs plunged boldly forward, keeping ahead of the slower-moving peasant lads; the girls' bravery served them till they reached the fringe of the in-coming tide; not until their knees went under water did they forego their venture. A higher wave came in, deluging the ones farthest out ; and then ensued a scampering toward the dike and a climbing up of the stone embankment. The old route across the sands, that had been the only one known to kings and barons, was not good enough for a modern Norman peasant. The religion of personal comfort has spread even as far as the fields.
Other aspects of the hill, on this day of the pilgrimage, made those older dead-and-gone bands of pilgrims astonishingly real. On the tops of bastions, in the clefts on the rocks, beneath the glorious walls of La Merveille, or perilously lodged on the crumbling cornice of a tourelle, numerous rude altars had been hastily erected. The crude blues and scarlets of banners were fluttering, like so many pennants, in the light breeze. Beneath the improvised altar-roofs—strips of gay cloth stretched across poles stuck into the ground-were groups not often seen in these less fervent centuries.
High up, mounted on the natural pulpit, formed of a bit of rock, with the rude altar before him with its bits of scarlet cloth covered with cheap lace, stood or knelt the priest. Against the wide blue of the open heaven his figure took on an imposing splendor of mien and an unmodern impressiveness of action. Beneath him knelt, with bowed heads, the groups of the peasant pilgrims; the women, with murmuring lips and clasped hands, their strong, deeply-seamed faces outlined with the precision of a Francesco painting against the gray background of a giant mass of wall or the amazing breadth of a vast sea-view; children, squat and chubby, with bulging cheeks starting from the close-fitting French "bonnet"; and the peasant-farmers, mostly of the older varieties, whose stiffened or rheumatic knees and knotty hands made their kneeling real acts of devotional zeal.
There were a dozen such altars and groups scattered over the perpendicular slant of the hill. The singing of the choir boys, rising like skylark notes into the clear space of heaven, would be floating from one rocky-nested chapel, while below, in the one beneath which we, for a moment, were resting, there would be the groaning murmur of the peasant groups in prayer.
Three times did the vision of St. Michael appear to Saint Aubert, in his dream, commanding the latter to erect a church on the heights of Mont St. Michel to his honor. How many a time must the modern pilgrim traverse the stupendous mass that has grown out of that command before he is quite certain that the splendor of Mont St. Michel is real, and not part of a dream !
Whether one enters through the dark magnificence of the great portals of the Chatelet; whether one mounts the fortified stairway, passing into the Salle des Gardes, passing onward from dungeon to fortified bridge to gain the abbatial residence; whether one leaves the vaulted splendor of oratories for aerial passageways, only to emerge beneath the majestic roof of the Cathedral—that marvel of the Early Norman, ending in the Gothic choir of the fifteenth century; or, as one penetrates into the gloom of the mighty dungeons where heroes, and brothers of kings, and saints, and scientists have died their long death—as one gropes through the black night of the crypt, where a faint, mysterious glint of light falls aslant the mystical face of the Black Virgin; as one climbs to the light beneath the ogive arches of the Aumanerie, through the wide-lit aisles of the Salle des Chevaliers, past the slender Gothic columns of the Refectory, up at last to the crowning glory of all the glories of La Merveille, to the exquisitely beautiful colonnades of the open Cloister—the impressions and emotions excited by these ecclesiastical and military masterpieces are ever the same, however many times one may pass them in review. A charm indefinable; but replete with subtle attractions, lurks in every one of these dungeons.
The great halls have a power to make one re-traverse their space I have yet to find under other vaulted chambers. The grass that is set, like a green jewel, in the arabesques of the cloister, is a bit of greensward the feet press with a different tread to that which skips lightly over other strips of turf. And the world, that one looks out upon through prison bars, that is so gloriously arched in the arm of a flying buttress, or that lies prone at your feet from the dizzy heights of the rock clefts, is not the world in which you, daily, do your petty stretch of toil, in which you laugh and ache, sorrow, sigh, and go down to your grave.
The secret of this deep attraction may lie in the fact of one's being in a world that is built on a height. Much, doubtless, of the charm lies, also, in the reminders of all the human life that, since the early dawn of history, has peopled this hill. One has the sense of living at a tremendously high mental pressure; of impressions, emotions, sensations crowding upon the mind; of one's whole meager outfit of memory, of poetic equipment, and of imaginative furnishing being unequal to the demand made by even the most hurried tour of the great buildings, or the most flitting review of the noble massing of the clouds and the hilly seas.
The very emptiness and desolation of all the buildings on the hill help to accentuate their splendor. The stage is magnificently set; the curtain, even, is lifted. One waits for the coming on of kingly shapes, for the pomp of trumpets, for the pattering of a mighty host. But, behold, all is still. And one sits and sees only a shadowy company pass and repass across that glorious mise-enscene.
For, in a certain sense, I know no other medieval mass of buildings as peopled as are these. The dead shapes seem to fill the vast halls. The Salle des Chevaliers is crowded, daily, with a brilliant gathering of knights, who sweep the trains of their white damask mantles, edged with ermine, over the dulled marble of the floor; two by two they enter the hall; the golden shells on their mantles make the eyes blink, as the groups gather about the great chimneys, or wander through the column-broken space.
Behind this dazzling cortege, up the steep steps of the narrow streets, swarm other groups—the medieval pilgrim host that' rushes into cathedral aisles, and that climbs the ramparts to watch the stately procession as it makes its way toward the church portals.
There are still other figures that fill every empty niche and dcserted watch-tower. Through the lancet windows of the abbatial gateways the yeomanry of the vassal villages are peering; it is the weary time of the Hundred Years' War, and all France is watching, through sentry windows, for the approach of her dread enemy. On the shifting sands below, as on brass, how indelibly fixt are the names of the hundred and twenty-nine knights whose courage drove, step by step, over that treacherous surface, the English invaders back to their island strongholds.