A Book of the Cevennes/Les Boutières



Geological formation—Characteristics of the Boutières and of the people—S. Peray and its wine—Castle of Crussol—Valley of the Erieux—A masterpiece of engineering—La Voute—Its decay—The chapel of the castle—Vernoux, the Geneva of the Huguenots—The Momiens—Party feeling—Massacre of S. Bartholomew—La Pourasse—The Cachard family—The drummer—Gorge of the Dunnière—La Tourette—Chalençon—Diana of Poitiers—Le Cheylard.

LES BOUTIÈRES have already had some sentences devoted to them. They differ geologically, and consequently in scenery, altogether from the high range of volcanic peaks of the mountains of the Vivarais below Privas. They are composed of granite and gneiss, and continue the Cevennes chain northwards. There are among them no craters, no floods of crystallised lava. Their heights are not extraordinary; they throw out long lateral spurs towards the Rhone. The scenery is tamer than in any other part of the Cevennes; that portion from Annonay to S. Etienne is given up to factories, which makes the country people prosperous but the country unattractive.

But from Annonay south to Privas there is pleasant if not fine scenery, and it is very rarely visited.

"It is," says Dr. Francus (A. Mazon), "a land that has a stamp of its own; its mountains, its agriculture, its customs, even its religion are peculiar to it. A land of steep slopes, boisterous rivers, rude summits, with pines above and chestnut trees below, with Biblical types of men, bullet-headed, and with brains not altogether like other men's brains. Nature herself puts on a severe countenance; the woods look like gloomy conspirators, the wind seems to chant psalms, and with a little imagination it is possible to fancy that one hears a far-off echo of some Assembly of the Desert that Time has forgotten to sweep away in its onward march."

Looking westward from Valence is seen the little town of S. Peray, and towering above it the ruined castle of Crussol on a limestone cliff.

S. Peray is famous, with a limited fame, for its sparkling wine.

The white wine of S. Peray always had a certain celebrity. The wine merchants of Burgundy and Champagne, seeing that very good juice of the grape was to be had there cheap, bought it up and sold it as their own crus, or else doctored it. They purchased whole vintages at the time of the gathering in and crushing of the grape, and by means of the navigation of the Rhone and Saône, were able to bring them into the heart of France.

But after a while the owners of the vineyards of S. Peray saw their way to selling direct to the consumer. In 1798 one of them discovered the secret how to make the wine effervesce, and he set to work to produce sparkling S. Peray, which soon obtained great favour.

The phylloxera came in 1874 and devastated the vineyards. But they have been replanted with stocks from America, grafted with the indigenous vine, and these are strong and flourishing, and yield abundantly, the wine somewhat coarse at first, but mellowing as the vine becomes more and more accustomed to the soil.

The huge crag surmounted by the ruins of the castle of Crussol is extensively quarried. The stone is of a fawn colour, and receives a polish. The huge castle, with its rifted donjon called the Horns of Crussol, at one time contained a town within its enclosure. Now, all is ruin.

The family of Crussol was not of much note till Louis de Crussol gained the favour of Louis XI., and was appointed governor of Dauphiné. The son married the heiress of Uzès, and with her the title of viscount passed to their son Charles, whose son Antoine was created Duke of Uzès. The ruined castle belongs still to the Uzès family.

The castle was destroyed by Richelieu in 1623.

In my book, In Troubadour Land, I have told the story of how the Uzès race sprang from a strolling company of three travelling comedian brothers, and so will not here repeat it. On a terrace above the Miolan that enters the Rhone at S. Peray is the castle of Beauregard, formerly a State prison, now a café restaurant with a speciality in tripe. So the whirligig of Time brings about its revenges.

The most interesting excursion among the Boutières is up the valley of the Erieux, that takes its rise above S. Agrève. It is a capricious river, at one time a small stream, at another a boiling torrent. In the great flood of 1876 it rose forty feet, and rolled down three times the amount of water that does the Seine at Paris. It brings with it from the granite particles of gold, but not in sufficient amount to make it worth while searching for the precious metal.

The line up the valley is a masterpiece of engineering; in places it is carried in cornice along the face of the gorge, now cut out of the rock, and now on a terrace built up on arches. The river enters the Rhone a couple of miles above La Voute, but the junction of the line to Le Cheylard is at this place. La Voute sur Rhone is an ancient town planted at the foot of and scrambling up a rock crowned with the ruins of a castle of the great family of Ventadour. The old town, with its tortuous streets, its venerable but crumbling houses, its steep, ladder-like ascent, is almost deserted, life has run down and settled in modern houses at the foot. But even the new town is death-struck.

The iron mines which made the place prosperous, and in 1870 yielded 60,000 tons of ore, produced but 12,683 tons in 1891, and in the following year only 520; and now, none. Ruin has fallen on La Voute, and it is doubtful if it will ever recover. In the old castle of the Ventadours was set up the bureau of the company that worked the mines. Now the offices are ruinous and deserted, like the halls and towers of the feudal princes.

The fortress was begun in 1319, and enlarged and made splendid in 1582. Ichabod! Its glory is departed. The beautiful Renaissance chapel with its marbles and sculpture is crumbling away. The chapel is vaulted with delicate ribs, and against the walls are carved a Resurrection and statues of the Duke and Duchess of Ventadour. But all, sculptured capitals of pilasters, dainty cornices, figures, have suffered under the hammers of the Revolutionary fanatics.

In the valley of Erieux, where it opens out, vineyards have been staged up the mountain sides, in narrow walled terraces, with infinite labour, and where there are not vines there are chestnuts and cherry trees. At S. Fortunat, the Dunière enters the Erieux, and hence a road leads to Vernoux, the Geneva of the Protestants of Upper Ardèche. It is mainly occupied by descendants of the Huguenots, but there are Catholics as well, living in a separate quarter. The Protestants are much divided among themselves. One sect is that of the Momiens, whose head-quarters are S. Agrève and Vernoux. They represent the original Huguenots far more truly than those who call themselves Evangelicals, for these latter have lapsed into Freethought, Indifference, Agnosticism, and the best are Deists. The Momiens do not attend the "Temples Protestants," but hold their assemblies in the open air, in fact have camp meetings. Every one brings his provisions with him; they have exercises of prayer, psalm-singing, and exhortation, and then all dine peaceably under the chestnut trees. They come into town only on Sundays and market-days, and do not frequent the public-houses. They have the character of being scrupulously honest.

Many of the Evangelicals never attend public worship. Out of eleven thousand inhabitants of Vernoux, about eight thousand are Protestants; they are able, accordingly, to engross all the offices and determine the elections. Conversions one way or the other are most rare, perhaps four or five in thirty years, and these only on account of marriages. The Protestant young men are desirous of getting Catholic wives, as the girls of this latter confession have a better moral character—being more carefully looked after by the clergy and sisters than are the others; but the curés in every way oppose mixed marriages, which is a mistake, for no more effective missionary can be found than a God-fearing, consistent wife.

Unhappily party feeling runs strong. An old curé of Vernoux named Chifflet, with the help of a M. Demars, who was a large contributor, founded a hospital, and when it was complete handed it over to the town for general use without regard to denomination. At once the town council elected a governing board, from which it excluded the principal donor, M. Demars, because he was a Catholic, and struck off the name of M. Lanthois, the only Protestant in the place who had given a sou towards the hospital.

So when the Calvinist temple wanted rebuilding a rate was imposed on all the citizens, and the Catholics had to contribute as well as the Evangelicals. But when the Catholics desired to erect a church for themselves a rate was refused. If the proportions had been the other way on, without a doubt the Catholics would have acted with precisely the same intolerance.

As a curé said to me the other day: "Live and let live is not a principle we understand in France, and never have. We who are bullied to-day, if we get the upper hand to-morrow would bully in our turn."

Charles IX. could not have made a more grateful present to French Protestantism than the massacre of S. Bartholomew. It is to them a perpetual and cherished grievance. They would not be without it any more than a professional mendicant would be without his sore. The massacre is introduced into every sermon, alluded to in every contingency, thrown in the face of a Catholic in every dispute, flourished even at a wedding-breakfast. A Calvinist infant is brought up on it. It is the first historic fact he has to acquire, and often when grown to man's estate is the only historic fact that he remembers. The massacre has been so rubbed into the minds of the Evangelicals that they cannot look in the face of their fellow-citizens of the other persuasion except through blood-red glass.

This temper sometimes produces vexatious results. In a village in the Boutières, where the meeting-house happened to possess a bell, one Sunday an old woman went to sleep during the discourse, and did not wake when the congregation dispersed; and being overlooked, was locked in. When she roused from her slumber, she went to the bell-rope and pulled long and hard. At the sound of the tocsin all the Protestants within hearing were roused. Now at last the long-expected massacre was coming off. Women and children fled to the woods. The men barricaded their houses, loaded their rifles, and prepared to sell their lives dearly. The bell pealed on, every scrap of courage save among the most heroic sank to their stocking-soles, when the old woman, having failed to summon relief, took to relieving herself from her situation by flinging the rope out of a window and crawling down it. Parturiunt montes nascetur ridiculus mus.

In 1885, when at the election for the Legislature the Conservative list passed in its entirety, the Protestants of Les Boutières were so impressed with the revival of Catholic hopes and their successes that one of these panics fell on them. Indeed, they have a name for such, la pourasse.

Before the outbreak of the Revolution there were many little nobles and landed gentry in the country whose châteaux are now in ruins or turned into farmhouses. They lived sociably, giving dances, meeting for shooting-parties or games of tennis.

One of these was the Monsieur de Cachard. On June 24th, 1786, he gave a dance to his neighbours, but found a difficulty in getting musicians. He applied to the garrison at Valence, and was offered the drummer of the regiment, who could also play the fife, and courteously he extended the invitation to any of the officers who would care to take a part in the entertainment. A young lieutenant accepted, his name was Napoleon Bonaparte, and he brought with him the drummer, Victor Beausoleil. Towards the conclusion of the ball, M. de Cachard went to the musician and asked how he could repay his services. "Only by letting me have a dance with mademoiselle your daughter." "By all means," replied the master of the house, and Beausoleil led out the young lady.

The Revolution came. The family of Cachard was dispersed; some were guillotined, some emigrated. At the Restoration, the head of the family went to Paris to solicit the restitution of some of the confiscated and sold estates. He solicited an audience with Marshal Victor, Duke of Belluno, minister of war. No sooner was he introduced, than the Duke started forward, grasped his hand and said: "Monsieur! we have not met since Midsummer Day, 1786, when I piped, and had the honour to dance with mademoiselle." The minister was, in fact, the drummer from Valence. He interested himself in the case and obtained for M. de Cachard the recovery of the ancient château and a portion of his lands. The Duke was wont to joke over his title. "As a drummer-boy I was Beausoleil. I have lost, not gained, by becoming a duke, for now I am only Belluno (Belle Lune)."

The river Dunière sweeps past Vernoux, and the road from S. Fortunat to this town presents a succession of striking scenes. The gorge through which the Dunière enters the Erieux has precipitous sides, above which the mountains rise bare, or but meagrely dotted with evergreen oaks, that grow low and stunted. Below rolls, leaps, and foams the torrent. In the contracted throat of Pontpierre, after the bursting of storms in the Cevennes, the water rises and writhes to escape, and issues from it into the valley of the Erieux as from a spout. The road follows the edge of the chasm as far as Roumézoux, after which the hills fall back and allow of cultivation. Then again they contract, but the gorge is less savage, and is commanded on the left bank by one of the noblest ruins in the Vivarais. The Dunière flowing from the east receives a torrent descending from the north, and at this point rises a mighty crag on the top of which two lofty towers stand out sharply against the sky. They belong to the castle of La Tourette, close to Vernoux. According to popular tradition it was built by the Saracens; it was the feudal centre of the district and occupied by a Marquess de La Tourette. The castle was intact till the Revolution, and was a scene of much hospitality extended to the bourgeoisie of Vernoux, who danced in the great hall, hung with stamped and gilded leather. At the Revolution the castle was unroofed and ruin set in rapidly, as every one who wanted to build a pigsty or a factory used its walls as a quarry. Happily of late years the family of La Tourette, that has its residence at Tournon, has repurchased the eagle nest of its ancestors and has put a stop to the destruction. From its isolated rock the castle was connected by a drawbridge with a terrace, beyond which was the farm, a building of the sixteenth century, that had not been molested. The terrace is sustained by a wall and was originally planted with trees, and must have been a delightful walk, suspended above the precipice, and from which one could look down on the birds of prey darting and fluttering in the depths, and which also had their habitations in these rocks.

In 1671, the Marquess de La Tourette bought the barony of Chalençon to the south of Vernoux. This was at one time one of the most powerful baronies in the country. It extended its jurisdiction over eighty parishes, all of which were bound to furnish men-at-arms when summoned to do so by the Seigneur of Chalençon.

In 1523, Jean de Poitiers, father of the famous Diana, Baron of Chalençon, was condemned to death for felony. But the beauty and the tears of his daughter saved his life; and after her father's death Diana became Baroness Chalençon and Privas. She seems never to have set foot in either. This left-handed queen died in 1566, and bequeathed the barony to the youngest of her daughters, Louise, who had married in 1546 Claude de Lorraine, Duc d'Aumale. In the square of Chalençon may be seen a gigantic elm, a Sully, one of the trees planted in all parishes on the conversion of Henry IV. The old castle was flanked by three towers, but was almost totally destroyed. It has been reconstructed.

The railway from S. Fortunat, where we abandoned it, deserves to be followed to its terminus at Le Cheylard, as it runs through some of the finest scenery in the Boutières to the cone of Mézenc, to which the chain hitches itself on. Moreover, it has been finely engineered the whole way. But Le Cheylard itself is not a place of interest, being a modern manufacturing town, created by Lyons speculators calculating on the cheapness and abundance of labour in that part, where agriculture is hampered by the elevation. The château of La Mothe is picturesque, but has had the tops of its towers knocked off and rehatted.

Le Cheylard may be employed as quarters for a visit to Mézenc and the Gerbier de Jonc, if these have not been made an object of pilgrimage from Le Puy, and from this side they present a better appearance than from the other.