A Book of the Cevennes/Ganges
FROM Alais the train that runs on to Nïmes drops one at Quissac, whence diverges a branch to Le Vigan and Tournemire on the main line from Paris to Bézier, Narbonne, and Barcelona. Quissac lies on the Vidourle, that flows a thin stream in a vast bed of pebbles, on which the washerwomen spread their linen. The esplanade by the river is planted, and on it is the Protestant temple, a feeble imitation of the Maison Carée at Nïmes. The parish church is in another part of the town, and is an astounding bit of patchwork after wreckage by the Camisards. The west front is an architectural curiosity. In the little place in front of it is a plane tree, serving, I presume, as a gallows for all the vermin caught in the place and neighbourhood. When I was there, rats, mice, weasels depended from the branches, and a sulky doll that would not eat had been hoisted up as well, and was dangling by its neck, whilst the little executioner stood below haranguing it.
The micocoulier, or nettle tree (Celtis Anstralis), is much grown around Quissac. This tree flourishes along the south of Europe bordering on the Mediterranean, in Italy, Greece, on the coast of Asia Minor, and stretches to the south of the Caspian. The tree is at home also in Algeria and Tunis. It is grown here for making whip-handles and for pitchforks. For the latter purpose it is suffered to have but two or three shoots at the top, and pains are taken to give the stem the utmost regularity, as that is to serve as the handle to the fork. Of the wood is also made the yokes for the oxen. The wood is heated in an oven, and given the desired bend or shape when hot.
Sauve bears for its arms argent a mountain, on top of which grows a plant of sage (sauve), and in chief the words Sal-Sal, that stand for. Originally the town occupied the height where is now the ruined castle, but the inhabitants drifted down to the abbey, which was below. In the religious wars, Sauve was taken by the Huguenots, and remained a stronghold of the Calvinists till 1629. In the war of the Camisards the Protestants of the upper town offered to open the gates to them disguised in the uniform of the royal soldiery, but the plot was detected, and in resentment the Camisards set fire to the abbey church and monastic buildings, murdered the old prior, aged ninety-one, and the curé, aged seventy. They swept together forty of the parish priests of the neighbourhood and mutilated them in the most horrible manner.
The country-house of the abbots of the fourteenth century has the inscription on it: "In urbe omnibus, in deserto mihi." (In the town I am at everybody's beck and call, in the desert I belong to myself only.)
And "desert" is not at all an inappropriate term for the country between Sauve and S. Hippolyte. It is a land of disintegrated rock, white as chalk, and assuming strange forms, fissured in parts vertically, in others horizontally, the wide desert growing nothing but aromatic herbs, as sage and juniper. The Vidourle sinks and flows underground. The ruins of a castle stand above the dry bed at a curve in the channel.
But even this desolate garigue has its use, as have those further south. It grows lavender, rosemary, thyme in abundance, savin, sage, savory; and the peasants collect these herbs and distil essences from them. To the fragrant essences is added bitter rue. The distillation takes place on the garigue by means of movable retorts that travel about from one place to another. Vast quantities of herbs are required for the purpose. Thus, to obtain one kilogramme of essence of thyme, it requires 400 kilogrammes of leaves, except in May, when the plant is in greatest vigour and most redolent, then only half that amount is required.
The great centre of the industry is Sommières to the south of Quissac, where the garigues are more extensive than near Sauve.
A great rivalry exists between the manufacturers of scents in this part of Languedoc and those of Provence. All have been hit alike of late years by the fabrication of scents out of coal tar, that seems as ready to produce sweet odours as it is to yield bright dyes. These deserts of limestone apparently grow nothing but what is fragrant. Their vegetation expires in sweet odours.
At S. Hippolyte-du-Fort the mountains draw near, terraced up for olives. The town with its three churches, commanded by a castle with its walls and towers, is eminently picturesque. The town was moved from its ancient site, S. Hippolyte le Vieux, about a castle built on a rock, Roquefourcade, so called from its form. The old parish church was there to the Revolution when it was sold. The bulk of the population of S. Hippolyte adopted the Reform of Calvin, and Catholic worship was not restored till 1601, and then only intermittently. In 1774 the bishop found that there were only two or three Catholic families in it. All the rest were Huguenot " ," although the Protestant temple had been pulled down at the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. A garrison was placed in the castle. It was attacked by the Camisards in vain. Roland entered the faubourgs on January 14th, 1704, burnt a church, and slaughtered three girls and five men.
Ganges lies in a valley at the junction of the Sumène with the Hérault, and near where the Vis emerges from its gorge to shed its waters into the Hérault. It is a bright town, with good inns,. and is an admirable centre for several interesting excursions. The station is at a height at some distance from the town, and near it is a huge modern convent, very conspicuous, planted on a rock.
The town contains little of interest except the château of the Marquesses of Ganges, which unhappily is doomed to destruction, as it has been purchased by the town to be pulled down and the site to be occupied by a market-hall. This is the more to be regretted, as it is not only a very fine Renaissance structure, but is also rendered famous by the murder of the Marchioness in 1667. The story has been often told, but must not here be omitted on that account. All versions rest on that of Pitaval, taken from the records of the Parliament of Toulouse. Pitaval's narrative was published in 1734. Unhappily he has decked it out with romantic features, drawn from conjecture, to explain the motive of the murderers, and we shall be obliged to distinguish between these and the facts that were proved.
At the Court of Louis XIV. one of the great beauties was the Marquise de Castellane, a woman as good as she was beautiful. Queen Christian of Sweden, who was then at the Court, declared that she had never seen one who was more lovely, and the painter, Mignard, took her portrait.
She was the daughter of a M. de Roussan, of Avignon, and after the death of her father had been educated in the house of her grandfather, M. de Nochères, who loved her as the apple of his eye. He was a very wealthy man, and she would be his heiress. At the age of thirteen she married the Marquess, who brought her to Paris. When aged twenty she was a widow, as her husband was drowned in the Mediterranean. She then returned to Avignon, and was at once surrounded by suitors. Her choice fell on the Marquess de Ganges, younger than herself, a man of a weak character, but with pleasant manners. The marriage took place in 1658. By him she became the mother of two children, a son and a daughter.
After a while the affection of the Marquess for his wife died away. Her superiority in mind and character offended his self-esteem, and to add to this his brother, the Abbé de Ganges, did his utmost to estrange the married couple.
The Marquess had three younger brothers. The elder, the Count de Ganges, does not enter into the story except towards its close. The second brother was the Abbé. This man was clever, cultured, of insinuating manners. He was not really in Holy Orders, but was one of those who at the period assumed a semi-ecclesiastical dress, and was given a benefice in commendam, the duties of which he never performed as unqualified, but the income of which he devoured. The third brother, the Chevalier, was a poor, weak creature, completely in the hands of the Abbé. The Marquess was much from home. He lived on bad terms with his wife; he found life dull in a little country town, and he liked the dissipation of a capital. He left his two younger brothers at the château, and placed the management of his estates in the hands of the Abbé.
According to Pitaval, both brothers fell in love with the far older Marquise, and the Abbé ventured to declare his sentiments towards her, and was repulsed with disdain so cutting as to fill him with resentment. Soon after M. de Nochères died, and left his vast fortune to his granddaughter in such a manner that her husband could not touch a penny of it without her consent. The Marquise at once had her will drawn up, bequeathing all her fortune to her mother, Mme. de Roussan, in trust for her children, but with the singular proviso that this old lady was to leave it entire to either one or other of her grandchildren, whichever she chose. When she deposited this will with the town councillor of Avignon, she added a codicil to the effect that in the event of her death and a later will being found this later will was to be regarded as invalid, as wrung from her against her intent, and that the above will was alone to take effect. This provision was witnessed by several persons of authority, and she insisted further that it should be kept secret and in no way divulged.
On her return to Ganges she was cheerful, saw a good deal of company, and seemed to be without suspicion of evil devised against her. What made her the more easy was that her stepmother was there, and in her presence the Abbé and the Chevalier were circumspect.
But before long the dowager marquise left for Montpellier, and her husband also departed. Since she had become an heiress he had feigned greater affection for her, and had treated her with courtesy. After his departure the Abbé had conferences with her. He assured her that the Marquess was deeply attached to her, but was wounded to the quick by her having made a will that passed him over; that the only possible way of concord being completely re-established was for her to alter the terms of her will.
The Marquise was a woman. She allowed herself to be persuaded, and under the dictation of the Abbé drew up a second will, whereby she constituted her husband sole heir. But she did not revoke the other, the former will deposited at Avignon, and the Abbé, knowing nothing of her final declaration made there to vitiate any second disposition of her property, was satisfied.
It is wholly unnecessary to accept the romance of the passion of the Abbé for his sister-in-law imported into the story by Pitaval, and for which no evidence was produced later. She was then aged twenty-nine, older than the two elder brothers. The fact of the will having been extorted from her, and the prospect of being able to share in the spoils should she die, is sufficient to account for what follows. The object of the Abbé now was to get rid of the Marquise.
She was not feeling well, and on the morning of May 17th, 1667, sent for the doctor, and asked for a draught. But when this was brought to her it looked dark and muddy, and she refused to drink it. It was not proved that this was poisoned, but it is not improbable that it was so. The Abbé and the Chevalier all day seemed restless, and were continually inquiring as to her condition, and seemed little pleased to learn that she was recovering from her indisposition.
The Marquise spent the day in bed. Several ladies of the town visited her, and she invited them to remain for dinner. She appeared in very good spirits; but it was noted that both her brothers-in-law spoke little and seemed distracted in mind. She joked the Chevalier about this, and he and the Abbé roused and attempted to talk, but manifestly with an effort. Nor would either of them eat. Presently the party broke up. The Abbé undertook the duties of host, and accompanied the ladies to the door of the château. The Chevalier remained behind with his sister-in-law. His manner was peculiar, he remained buried in thought. She asked him the reason, but could get no answer from him; then the door opened, the Abbé entered, and the solution to the puzzle was given.
So far we have the facts from the evidence of the witnesses before the Parliament of Toulouse; what follows is from the narrative of the Marchioness herself.
The Abbé entered the bedroom, a pistol in one hand and a tumbler with some dark turbid liquid in the other. His features had changed expression. Rage flared from his eyes. He locked the door behind him, took his station before his sister-in-law, and signed to his brother, who drew his sword. At first it seemed to her that hesitation appeared in his face and movements, but if that were so, it passed rapidly away. The Abbé broke the silence. He stepped up to the bed and said: "Madame, you must die. Choose steel, lead, or poison."
She cried out, asking what she had done. She implored the two men to spare her. She promised to forget their conduct if they would withdraw. She turned to the Chevalier. She reminded him that she had frequently furnished him with money, and had recently given him a bill for several hundred livres. But in vain. He also spoke. "Enough, enough, Madame. Make your selection, or we shall choose for you."
The miserable woman took the glass out of the hand of the Abbé. She drank whilst he held the pistol to her breast, and the Chevalier menaced her heart with his rapier. Some drops falling on her bosom blistered it, and her lips were also blistered. The draught was a composition of arsenic and sublimate of mercury dissolved in aquafortis. The Chevalier noticed that she had not swallowed the dregs. He took a silver hairpin and swept all that remained attached to the side of the tumbler together into the bottom, and saying, "Be quick about it; drain to the last drop," forced her to take it. She received it into her mouth but did not swallow what she had taken, but sank back into the bed, and in convulsive movements turned away and covering her head with the bedclothes spat out what she had last taken. Then she exclaimed, "For God's sake do not slay my soul as well as my body; send for a confessor." Both brothers left the room. They had no reason for refusing this last request, for the vicar was Perette, a bad man who had been tutor to the Marquess, and was in the confidence of the brothers.
No sooner was the door shut than the Marchioness sprang out of bed. In haste she drew on her petticoat, and opened the window that looked into the yard. The window was twenty-four feet from the ground, nevertheless she leaped down. At the same moment the door had opened and Perette entered; he sprang after her, and succeeded in laying hold of her dress and retaining her for a moment or two. But the garment rent, and she fell to the ground on her feet without serious injury.
The vicar laid hold of a silver water-jar and hurled it after her, but missed his aim. The jug, instead of braining her, struck a stone and broke.
The Marquise found every door of the courtyard fastened and locked. In fear of the operation of the poison she thrust one of her tresses down her throat, and this produced sickness. Fortunately she had partaken of a good deal of pudding at the meal, and this in a measure prevented the immediate working of the poison. She tried to escape through the stable, but that was locked. A groom, however, came up. "Save me! Save me! I must escape!" she cried. The man, overcome with terror and pity, hesitated a moment, then caught her up in his arms, carried her through the stables, and handed her over to the first woman he encountered in the street.
The Marquise continued her flight. Already the brothers-in-law were in pursuit, shouting, "Hold her fast! She is mad!" And whoever saw the Marquise running in her nightshirt, with a torn skirt and with bare feet over the pavement of the street, might well believe what they called out.
The people were already assembling and preparing to stop her, when the Chevalier caught her at the door of a Mme. de Prets, thrust her in, and entering himself bolted the house door. The Abbé coming up, pistol in hand, stood on the threshold and threatened to shoot any one who interfered. His sister-in-law in her madness was not to be made a spectacle of to every one.
In the house of Mme. de Prets a party of ladies was assembled. The Marquise rushed into the midst of them, followed by the Chevalier, crying out that she had been poisoned. The Chevalier declared before the ladies that his sister was insane, and they did not know at first what to make of this extraordinary scene. Mme. Brunette, the wife of the Calvinist preacher in the place, gave her some treacle, at the time supposed to be a sovereign remedy against poison. She swallowed it, but the fire of the poison made the Marchioness entreat for water. A tumbler was handed to her, but the Chevalier smashed it in her mouth as she was drinking. He succeeded in persuading the ladies that his unfortunate sister-in-law was out of her mind, and begged them to excuse such an unseemly irruption into their midst.
Then the poor creature implored to be allowed to go into the adjoining room; this was granted, but the Chevalier followed her, and with his rapier stabbed her twice in the breast. She cried out, ran to the door and entreated help. He followed, and, blind with rage, stabbed her five times in the back. The last time the weapon broke and left the blade sticking in her shoulder. She fell at the feet of the assembled ladies drenched in blood. The Chevalier then ran downstairs, and cried to his brother, "Away! away! the job is done!" But as they hurried down the street they heard the women at the window crying for help and for a surgeon. The Abbé, in the idea that the Marquise was still living, had the incredible audacity to go back, enter the house, thrust the women aside, and put the pistol to the breast of his victim. Mme. Brunette struck up his hand, and the pistol did not go off. Thereupon the Abbé hit Mme. Brunette on the head, and again attempted to kill his sister-in-law, this time by braining her with the butt-end. Now, however, all the women present fell on him, dragged, beat, thrust, and succeeded eventually in expelling him from the house.
It was nine o'clock at night when the murderous attempt was made. Darkness favoured the assassins; they knew that they would be pursued, so they fled to an estate that belonged to the Marquess at Aubernas, thence by boat down the river to the sea, and escaped pursuit by fleeing from France.
The unfortunate Marquise lingered nineteen days. The surgeon was obliged to plant his knee against her back in order to obtain leverage for the extraction of the broken blade; but she died of the result of the poison rather than of her wounds.
The two scoundrels before they fled had sent a message post-haste to Avignon to inform the Marquess that his wife had been so treated by them that she could not possibly live. He did not hurry himself to go to Ganges, and when he arrived expressed no sympathy with her, no concern for what had been done, but pestered the dying woman about her will, for in Avignon he had got wind of what she had done to protect it from being revoked.
The case was tried at Montpellier. The Marquess was decreed to have forfeited his title and estates, which reverted to the Crown. The Abbé and Chevalier were condemned to be broken on the wheel, but as they were beyond reach the sentence could not be carried into effect. The vicar, Perette, was sentenced to the galleys for life, and died on his way to them. Louis XIV. conferred the estates of the Marquess on the brother, the Count of Ganges; he held them till his nephew was of age, and then surrendered them to him. The Chevalier entered the service of Venice, and was killed by a Turkish bullet in Candia.
The Abbé escaped into Lippe, where, under the assumed name of Montellière, he passed as a Huguenot refugee, was received into favour, and was appointed tutor to the children of the Count of Lippe. He even aspired to the hand of a kinswoman of the Count. The latter demurred. He liked Montellière well enough, but objected that he was not noble.
"Oh! as to that, do not concern yourself," said the Abbé, "I am the Abbé de Ganges, of whom you may possibly have heard."
The horrible story was known—it had been bruited about Europe. The Count was horror-struck, and would have surrendered the miscreant to the authorities in France, but that the pupil of the Abbé pleaded for him, and he was allowed to escape into Holland, where the Count's cousin, who had lost her heart to him although knowing what a ruffian he was, followed him in disguise and married him. Six months after his marriage, a stranger accosted him in the streets of Amsterdam. "You are the Abbé de Ganges," he said. "I avenge the Marquise," and he blew out the miscreant's brains. Who the avenger was, was never discovered.
Near Ganges is the Grotte des Demoiselles, a cave that has so long enjoyed notoriety that the smoke of torches has somewhat spoilt its freshness. It was, in fact, discovered in 1780. There are other grottoes finer, as that of Dargilan. However, the great hall called that of the Virgin, which is one hundred and forty-five feet in height, is fine; in it is a stalagmite supposed to represent the Virgin, and another forms a natural porch, eighteen feet high and nine feet wide. It demands, I think, a special aptitude of the mind to appreciate caverns. I, for my part, am so fond of the light of day that I do not go underground before my time comes.
There is another at Ganges, L'Aven Laurien, as picturesque as it is interesting from an archaeological point of view. The phenomenon of this pot-hole is one very common in this limestone district. A well gapes before you descending to unknown depths. Honeysuckle, clematis, wild vine droop down it, disguise its presence, and interlace about it in the branches of the ilex and the wild fig, flinging their boughs across the orifice. Bunches of scolopendria let their long fronds droop into the depth, and laurels add their sombre verdure to the clear notes of the deciduous plants.
At 150 feet below the mouth of this pot-hole on the mountain flank is a cave, reduced by accumulations to a small opening. One can enter on all fours only. But after having passed within, a spacious chamber is reached about 120 feet in length, with branches as a cross, but at the extremity opposite the entrance it opens abruptly on the verdant well of the aven.
It is impossible not to be struck on reaching this point at the picturesque appearance of the cave. It receives light that filters down the aven through the network of foliage above, and long trails of leaves fall from above as though to decorate the unsounded abyss that opens below. Now this cavern was a habitation of neolithic man, as has been shown by finds there of his handiwork. But think of the mothers of families residing there on the brink of that awful gulf! What agonies of apprehension they must have been in when the little urchins played puss-in-the-corner there; when they saw them totter to the verge to look up at the green descending light and the pendent leaves! If a child tripped and went down, its little body could never be recovered. But how docile and meek and mealy-mouthed the wives must have been when, if one raised her voice to scold her lord and master, he could point over his shoulder with his thumb to the unfathomed abyss where it could be silenced for ever by a push.
Another aven again is that of Rabanel, down which M. Martel has descended. Nothing disguises the opening of this horrible well, that sinks precipitously 390 feet. The explorers found a heap of debris at the bottom.
"It took us three days to construct the scaffolding for the windlass. I went down first, fastened by a double rope, and I spun round forty-seven times in the void, happy to discover that the only way to save myself from giddiness was to count the revolutions I made.
"But what a spectacle when I reached the bottom! A slope of rubbish inclined at thirty-five degrees which one can descend without difficulty for 60 feet, and then a great vault, like the nave of a cathedral, 300 feet long by 45 feet, and 450 feet high, lighted from above by a lucarne of blue sky, the light falling down which, is sifted, strange, glinting with violet reflexions from the walls, whence depended stalactites formed drop by drop like crystal tears."
Ganges is a manufacturing town, its speciality being the most delicate silk fabrics. Marvels of lightness are produced. Dyeing the silk is also done here. The workers produce stockings so fine that a pair will weigh only 185 grains. The spider does not spin a finer web, and not so strong, for these impalpable tissues are remarkably resistant. The silk is purchased in cocoons in the markets of Alais and S. Hippolyte in May and June. The weaving is done only by day, and embroidresses work with their needle adorning the tissues, and are remarkably dexterous and tasteful.
The population is divided into Protestants, who have a large circular meeting-house on the Grande Place, and the Catholics, who have a stately new church opposite the old château of the Marquesses of Ganges, in another part of the town.
Excursions may be made from Ganges to explore the gorges of the Vis and the Hérault, but there is a dearth of roads. They do not penetrate these ravines; and to traverse the glaring plateau or to thread the burning ravines in summer is impossible. They must be visited in April and May, but even March is not too early.