Read CHAPTER XV of A Midsummer Drive Through The Pyrenees, free online book, by Edwin Asa Dix, on ReadCentral.com.

THE VALLEY OF THE SUN.

Baigneres, la beauté, l’honneur, lé paradis.
De ces monts sourcilleux

DU BARTAS.

“I hear from Bigorre you are there.”
Lucile.

An agreeable little city we find about us, the next day. Bigorre is one of the most well-known of the Pyrenean resorts, and has a steady though not accelerating popularity. The tide of ultra summer fashion, has tended latterly toward Eaux Bonnes, Cauterets and Luchon in preference; still, Bigorre, conservative and with it’s own assured circle of friends, looks on without malice at its sister spas who have come to wear finer raiment than itself. A number of the English, some even in winter and spring, frequent Bigorre almost alone of these Pyrenean resorts, and their liking for it has made it known, beyond the others, in their own country. The streets are shady and well lined; the houses, frequently standing apart in their own small gardens, give a pleasant impression of space and airiness. There are numberless shops, where we can later replenish various needs. The pavements seem to have been built and leveled, by MacAdam himself, as an enthusiast puts it; and everywhere along the side of the walks bound rivulets of mountain water, so dear to these Pyrenean towns.

The mineral springs here are not powerful, but are useful in mild digestive disorders and the like, and afford at least a pretext for an idle summering, as springs will do, the world over. The Establishment is large and well arranged, but getting well is no such stern and serious affair at Bagneres de Bigorre as at Bareges, and here the visitors wisely mingle their saline prescriptions in abundant infusions of pleasure. There are drives and promenades in all directions. The Casino offers concerts and occasional plays and operettas, and a band in the main promenade entertains regularly the listening evening saunterers. Rightly does the town aim still to merit the praise given by Montaigne, who paid it a marked tribute in his writings:

“He who does not bring along with him,” observes that great French essayist, “so much cheerfulness as to enjoy the pleasure of the company he will there meet, [at bath-resorts,] and of the walks and exercises to which the beauty of the places in which baths for the most part are situated invites us, will doubtless lose the best and surest part of their effect. For this reason, I have hitherto chosen to go to those of the most pleasant situation, where there was the most convenience of lodging, provision and company, as the Baths of Banieres in France.”

The cheery town is large enough to take on something quite akin to a city-like air; it has a population of about 10,000, and in summer the number has its half added upon it by increase of visitors and boarders. The hotels are praiseworthy, though making little display; and a marked attraction of the town is this wide promenade of the main street, termed the Coustous, so called, it is alleged, because anciently the guardians, custodes, of Bigorre used here to pace their nightly patrol. The Coustous is doubly lined with arching trees, and has seats and a wide path along the centre; the carriage-ways enclose this, and shops and cafes line the outer walks. A few squares away, another similar promenade broadens out, likewise vivified with trees and shops and booths. Facing this is the bath-establishment before mentioned, and beyond, in grounds of its own, the Kursaal or Casino. Cropping up among the houses, stout buildings older than the rest tell of the days when Bagneres was a “goodly inclosed town,” the inhabitants of which had a hard time of it against the depredations of Lourdes and Mauvoisin and its other robber neighbors.

For we are among old times again at Bigorre, and many spots in the vicinity are rife with Middle-Age incidents of robbing and righting. This region was the plague-spot of the country for its freebooting fortresses, Lourdes, Mauvoisin, Trigalet, with their adventurers always ready for a fracas, the strongholds, as has been said, of those logicians who

“kept to the good old plan
That those should take who have the power,
And those should keep who can,”

and the provinces about them lived in constant worriment. This valley especially suffered from their armed bands; now they raided some exposed hamlet, now made prisoners of merchants or travelers on the highway, anon swooped down here upon Bagneres and made off with money and live stock in gratifying plenty.

And centuries yet preceding this, the valley saw wars on a larger scale, when Csar and his Romans, ploughing victoriously through Gaul, came to the Aquitani and crushed them down into the furrows with the rest, after repeated and furious resistance. The Romans knew too of these springs, and there are still remains of the city, Vicus Aquensis, which they built on this site. In the Museum are Roman relics found while excavating, among them votive tablets recording the donors’ gratitude to the nymphs of the springs for cures effected. Clearly, Bigorre is of no mushroom growth, but has been toughened and seasoned by age and warfare into the just reward of its nowaday repose and popularity.

II.

It is Sunday, and there is service in the English chapel, a brief walk away. It is conducted by the nervous, genial chaplain staying at the hotel, who afterwards greets us cordially at the noon luncheon-hour, and justifies our pleasure at finding a tongue which can return English for English and with fluency. He officiates at Pau during the winter, he tells us, and here at Bigorre during the summer; and so, in a sense, we find, does the hotel proprietor himself, who, with his expansive wife, owns a hotel in Pau as well as here, and conducts the former during the winter months, when the season at Bigorre is ended.

The day is evidently that of some special saint; the population is out in its brightest hues. Saints are in great authority with these people; their recurrent “days” fill the calendar; their ascribed specialties are as various as were those of the minor Greek or Egyptian deities. All is in reverence, be it added; canonization is a very sacred thing with the Catholic peasant. The power even of working ill seems to be, in curious ignorance, at times attributed to certain of these saints; “I have seen with my own eyes,” relates a native Gascon writer, M. de Lagreze, “a woman who, wishing to disembarrass herself of her husband, demanded of a venerable priest, as the most natural thing in the world, that he should say a mass for her to St. Secaire; she was convinced that, this saint, unknown to martyrology, had the power of withering up (sécher) and killing troublesome individuals, to accommodate those who invoked his aid."

We take another walk in the afternoon through the streets of the town, and afterward compare international notes once more with our cordial English clergyman. It is renewedly grateful to hear again the mother tongue spoken understandingly by a stranger. The utter and unaccountable absence of our own countrymen’s faces and voices from these Pyrenean resorts gives one constantly a touch of regret. One longs occasionally for the crisp American greeting, the quick lighting-up, the national hand-shake, a comparison of adventures. Saving by two compatriots met in Biarritz, we have found our nation entirely unrepresented in or near the summer Pyrénées.

III.

Bagneres is too far to the northward to be in touch with true mountain expeditions. Its only “star” in this line is the majestic Pic du Midi de Bigorre, which, being itself an outlying peak, is much nearer us than the main range and is often ascended from Bigorre, a conveyance being taken to Grip and the start on foot or horseback made from that point. There are, besides, a number of lesser mountains about, and drives and longer excursions unnumbered. A rifle perhaps most recommendable, though not always mentioned in the hand-books, is one that will bring us back again for a day to the times of our rascally acquaintance, Count Gaston Phoebus, and his contemporaries. This is to the castle of Mauvoisin before mentioned, Mauvais voisin,” “bad neighbor,” as it abundantly proved itself to Bigorre. It lies but ten miles away, in a northeast direction; it is reached best by the carriage-road, and the trip can readily be made in a half-day. This was one of the Aquitaine fortresses which with Lourdes, it will be remembered, fell into the hands of the English, about the middle of the fourteenth century, as part of the ransom of King John of France. Raymond of the Sword was appointed its governor, and a right loyal sword did he prove himself to own. But Mauvoisin could not resist siege as Lourdes could. The Duke of Anjou was soon at it, determined to recapture it for the French, and after a stiff course of starving and thirsting, the garrison surrendered and Mauvoisin came back to the French flag.

It was near this spot that a peculiarly savage and yet ludicrous fight once occurred. It was during the same robberesque period, about the middle of the fourteenth century; and Froissart gives us an animated account of it; he was on the way to Orthez through this very region, and his traveling companion tells him of the event as they pass:

A party of reckless men-at-arms, bent on mischief and plunder, had sallied out from Lourdes, it seems, on a long foray. They were a hundred and twenty lances in all, and they had two dashing leaders, Ernauton de Sainte Colombe and Le Mengeant de Sainte Basile, the latter well called the Robin Hood of the Pyrénées. They were all men whose very breath of life was in thieving and combat. The band had “lifted” an abundance of booty; they had exploited the country as far even as Toulouse, “finding in the meadows great quantities of cattle, pigs and sheep, which they seized, as well as some substantial men from the flat countries, and drove them all before them.”

The Governor of Tarbes and other knights and squires of Bigorre heard of this mischief and determined to attack the marauders. They assembled at Tournay, a town not far from Bigorre and close by Mauvoisin, and counted up two hundred men. Among them was our athletic celebrity, the Bourg d’Espaign, the same who carried the ass and wood upstairs, that Christmas Day at Orthez. He was a regiment in himself, “being well formed, of a large size, strongly made and not too much loaded with flesh; you will not find his equal in all Gascony for vigor of body.” At Tournay they prepared to lie in wait and spring on the thieving band as it returned.

The Lourdes roughs had wind of the ambush on their homeward way. They were quite as ready for a fight as a foray, but prudently divided their numbers: one detachment was to drive the booty around by the bridge half-way between Tournay and Mauvoisin and thence on through by-roads; while the main band was to march in order of battle on the high ground and so draw the attack. Both sections were later to meet at a point beyond, from whence they would soon be safely at Lourdes. “On this they departed; and there remained with the principal division Ernauton de Sainte Colombe, Le Mengeant de Sainte Basile, and full eighty companions, all men-at-arms; there were not ten varlets among them. They tightened their armor, fixed their helmets, and, grasping their lances, marched in close order, as if they were instantly to engage; they indeed expected nothing else, for they knew their enemies were in the field.”

The Bourg and his friends scented the stratagem in turn, and promptly divided themselves likewise. He himself with one division guarded the river passage, which they suspected the cattle and prisoners would be sent around to cross. The other division, under the Governor of Tarbes, took the high ground.

At the Pass of Marteras, not far from the castle, the governor’s division met the main body of the enemy. “They instantly dismounted, and leaving their horses to pasture, with pointed lances advanced, for a combat was unavoidable, shouting their cries: ‘St. George for Lourde!’ ‘Our Lady for Bigorre!’”

Now it is to be remembered that fighters in those days were often cased in armor from crown to sole, a preposterous armor, burdensome and unwieldy, but almost utterly invulnerable. Sword-blows might dint it for hours without doing damage; the danger in battle lay chiefly in simple over-exertion. This gives the ludicrous point to the demure narration made to Froissart by his companion:

“They charged each other, thrusting their spears with all their strength, and, to add greater force, urged them forward with their breasts. The combat was very equal; and for some time none was struck down, as I heard from those present. When they had sufficiently used their spears, they threw them down, and with battle-axes began to deal out terrible blows on both sides. This action lasted for three hours, and it was marvelous to see how well they fought and defended themselves. When any were so worsted or out of breath that they could not longer support the fight, they seated themselves near a large ditch full of water in the middle of the plain, when, having taken off their helmets, they refreshed themselves; this done, they replaced their helmets and returned to the combat, I do not believe there ever was so well fought or so severe a battle as this of Marteras in Bigorre, since the famous combat of thirty English against thirty French knights in Brittany.

“They fought hand to hand, and Ernauton de Sainte Colombe was on the point of being killed by a squire of the country called Guillonet de Salenges, who had pushed him so hard that he was quite out of breath, when I will tell you what happened: Ernauton had a servant who was a spectator of the battle, neither attacking nor attacked by any one; but seeing his master thus distressed, he ran to him and wresting the battle-axe from his hand, said: ’Ernauton, go and sit down! recover yourself! you cannot longer continue the battle.’ With this battle-axe, he advanced upon the squire and gave him such a blow on the helmet as made him stagger and almost fall down. Guillonet, smarting from the blow, was very wroth, and made for the servant to strike him with his axe on the head; but the varlet avoided it, and grappling with the squire, who was much fatigued, turned him round and flung him to the ground under him, when he said: ’I will put you to death if you do not surrender yourself to my master.’

“‘And who is thy master?’

“‘Ernauton de Sainte Colombe, with whom you have been so long engaged.’

“The squire, finding he had not the advantage, being under the servant, who had his dagger ready to strike, surrendered, on condition to deliver himself prisoner within fifteen days at the castle of Lourde, whether rescued or not.

“Of such service was this servant to his master; and I must say, Sir John, that there was a superabundance of feats of arms that day performed, and many companions were sworn to surrender themselves at Tarbes and at Lourde. The Governor of Tarbes and Le Mengeant de Sainte Basile fought hand to hand, without sparing themselves, and performed many gallant deeds, while all the others were fully employed; however, they fought so vigorously that they exhausted their strength, and both were slain on the spot.

“Upon this, the combat ceased by mutual consent, for they were so worn down that they could not longer wield their axes; some disarmed themselves, to recruit their strength, and left there their arms. Those of Lourde carried home with them the dead body of Le Mengeant; as the French did that of Ernauton to Tarbes; and in order that the memory of this battle should be preserved, they erected a cross of stone on the place where these two knights had fought and died.”

At the bridge, a few miles away, the other sections met, and belabored each other as vigorously as did those at the pass. The Bourg d’Espaign performed wonders: “he wielded a battle-axe, and never hit a man with it but he struck him to the ground. He took with his own hand the two captains, Cornillac and Perot Palatin de Bearn. A squire of Navarre was there slain, called Ferdinand de Miranda, an expert man-at-arms. Some who were present say the Bourg d’Espaign killed him; others, that he was stifled through the heat of his armor.

“In short, the pillage was rescued and all who conducted it slain or made prisoners; for not three escaped, excepting varlets, who ran away and crossed the river by swimming. Thus ended this business, and the garrison of Lourde never had such a loss as it suffered that day. The prisoners were courteously ransomed or mutually exchanged; for those who had been engaged in this combat had made several prisoners on each side, so that it behooved them to treat each other handsomely.”

“Such,” laughs Johnson, “was a fight of men-at-arms in the Middle Ages, derived from the graphic description of Froissart, in whose narrative there always runs an undercurrent of sly humor when portraying the military extravagances of the age. And it is impossible to avoid the contagion; for who can picture in any more serious style a hurly-burly of huge, iron-clad, suffocating, perspiring warriors, half blinded with helmet and visor and scarce able to stir beneath the metallic pots encompassing them around; belaboring and hustling each other about with weapons quite unequal to reach the flesh and blood within, till, out of breath and blown with fatigue, they sate down as coolly as they could and refreshed themselves; then getting up again, again drove all the breath out of their bodies, and all without doing the least mortal harm, unless somebody died of the heat or was smothered to death in his own armorial devices.”

IV.

This Le Mengeant, the worthy killed in his armor, as above recorded, at the Pass of Marteras, had been the hero of more than one bedeviling exploit during his career thus untimely cut off. One I cannot forbear giving, told in these Chronicles and retold with charming gusto by the writer above mentioned. Le Mangeant, it would seem, had evidently “a strong notion of the humorous in his composition. One time, he set out, accompanied by four others, all with shaven crowns and otherwise disguised as an abbot and attendants going from upper Gascony to Paris on business. Having reached the Sign of the Angel at Montpelier, a suitable hostelry for such holy men, they soon gained much credit for their saintly deportment and conversation; insomuch that a rich man of the city, Sir Beranger, was fain to avail himself of their company and ghostly comfort by the way. We say nothing of the generosity which prompted the holy father to offer Sir Beranger an escort free of all expense, so much was he captivated by that gentleman’s charming society. One can imagine the sly winks and contortions interchanged by this pious party as the victim fell into the trap. But no amount of imagination can ever do justice to the features of Sir Beranger, when, three leagues from the city, the right reverend prelate and his apostolic brethren threw off the mask with peals of un-canonical laughter, led the wretched cit off to Lourdes through crooked by-roads, and there extracted from his disconsolate relatives five thousand francs of ransom, which they, holy men, doubtless devoted to the purposes of their order. There is a story for a rhymer Sherwood forest could not beat!

“It is but proper to set society right as to those gallant days of chivalry, when knights fought for the love of ladies’ eyes and glory that lived for ever. More practical men are hardly to be found in business to-day, for they never lost sight of that grand maxim, to ’get money.’ ‘Quaerenda pecunia primum, virtus post nummos’ was a motto each knight might have much more truly borne upon his shield than the charming bits of brag and sentiment cunningly designed for that purpose by accommodating heraldry. Money they got, honestly if they could, but they got it; and to do them justice they spent it right jovially, as all such gallant spirits do when they are disbursing what does not belong to them. After all, time only alters the characters in the Drama, the plot is pretty much the same; and with a suburban villa for a chateau, a face of brass for a coat of iron, and a steel pen for a steel sword, your gallant knight of to-day storms his bank or plunders his neighbors from an entrenched joint-stock fortress or leads on his band to surprise the public pocket from some tangled thicket of swindling, just upon the same principles as our old Pyrenean friends.”