A Book of the Cevennes/The Wood of Païolive



Curiosity of the wood—How the rock disintegrated—Extraordinary shapes—A labyrinth—La Gleyzasse—Hermitage—the King of Païolive—The Royalists of 1792—Jalès—The Bailli of Suffren— Taking the inventories.

LE BOIS DE PAÏOLIVE is in repute among the inhabitants of the plain and its great cities as one of the wonders of the world, at least of that self-contained world of France, in which is everything, outside of which nothing. Païolive is Pagus Olivæ. Curious the wood is, but cannot compare with Mourèze or Montpellier le Vieux, which have characteristics in common with it. The characteristics are these. There is an extensive elevated platform of cretaceous limestone of very unequal consistency. The result of this inequality has been that the softer matter has been washed away, whether at the retreat of the Tertiary ocean, or whether by atmospheric degradation alone is uncertain, leaving the cores of greater resistance isolated, as turrets, obelisks, bridges. And these cores themselves containing soluble matter have been riddled in all directions by the rain that, resting on them for a moment, has been then absorbed, and has carried forth through every crevice what it was able to dissolve. But even the masses of hardest texture are so soft that the rain soaking into them and then running out at every perforation has furrowed the white face with its trickling tears.

The wood measures three miles in each direction, and a guide is needed through the labyrinth of galleries and masses of insulated rock, all buried in a wood of oaks, here and there cleared for mulberry plantations.

It lies beside the road from the station of S. Paul le Jeune to Les Vans, and reaches to the river Chassezac, that has cut its way through the plateau in a profound ravine. In fact, the same formation continues on the further side of the stream, but the shapes of the rocks assumed there are less eccentric. A guide lives in a cottage where a road to the right joins that coming from S. Paul, and he charges three francs for showing visitors the principal sights in the wood, five francs for a complete exploration.

The path, or track rather, changes direction at every moment, wriggling in and out among the rocks, over fallen masses, down descents where the brambles throw long streamers across one's path to arrest progress; the thorns claw and rend ladies' dresses. But the turf is purple with violets, and the fantastic shapes of the rocks draw one forward in defiance of thorn and prickle.

Some rocks resemble monstrous beasts. Near the road are the Lion and the Bear, engaged in a wrestle. There are castles with windows and doors, pointed arches, a very orgy of natural architecture in which every style is represented. We pass through narrow rifts into which the sun never penetrates, arrive by long galleries at culs-de-sac, and are forced to retrace our steps. Everywhere cavities, grottoes, piercing the rock that glares white in the sun and almost blinds the eye. We arrive in a great cirque, in the midst of which are mulberries. In and out, everywhere grow oaks and broom; suddenly we come forth upon the gaping chasm through which rolls the Chassezac. A narrow and dangerous path down a rift enables one to descend to the river.

By scrambling among fallen blocks, after having passed under a little natural arch, a tunnel is reached in which a score of persons might shelter from the rain. Then a path emerging into the light leads along a terrace above the abyss, and by climbing and sliding and clinging to the bushes La Gleyzasse (the Church) is reached, a rift and cavern, once inhabited, as has been proved by the discovery under the soil of flint weapons and fragments of pottery.

This is the best known of the caverns of Païolive. But the mysterious wood grows above a whole subterranean world of vaults and passages. The entrances to these grottoes are known only to the guide; they are hidden among bushes, and often they are pot-holes, wells that open without warning, and down which an incautious visitor might fall. Stones thrown in strike the sides with a sound that becomes ever feebler till they reach the unexplored bottom.

M. de Malbos describes some of these:—

"I visited as well a grotto forming a gallery, on a very rapid slope. I would not speak of it but that, entering it without a candle, I found that my right foot did not touch the ground; so I retraced my steps to light a candle, and thus illumined I saw with horror that I had had half my body suspended over a precipice, sustaining myself only by my left foot on a slide of loose stones.

"On ascending the river of Chassezac, on top of the precipice one can reach the Grott of the Chouans. One descends, or rather jumps, down to it, where it opens on a precipice with a ledge before it. Down to this cave one has to climb with difficulty. It divides into several galleries, that are lighted by small cracks, visible at the height of one hundred feet above the Chassezac. It was in this grotto that seven Royalists, who had fled to it, were taken by means of fires of straw and sulphur lighted in the entrance. They were shot at a little distance from it. One only, Gavidel, managed to escape, having managed to breathe through the barrel of his gun, which he had unscrewed and thrust through one of the cracks I have mentioned."

Near the entrance to the wood is the group that goes by the name of the Lion and the Bear, already mentioned. There is a Lot's Wife, there is a nun, a sphynx, and so on. The Castle of the Trois Seigneurs does seem actually to have possessed a little fortress, built in and out among the spires of rock, for fragments of wall are worked into the fissures and surmount some of the points.

But perhaps the most remarkable spot is the Cros de la Perdrix, where the limestone is in a craggy jumble of all kinds of forms.

One enters this sort of fortified circus with precipitous sides by a noble rock, pierced by a natural arch, at the entry to a cleft, something like that of Gleyzasse—already described.

If we follow the edge of the ravine of the Chassezac we see the river gliding smoothly below through green pastures between sheer walls. On the promontory of Cornillon are the remains of an ancient village.

At the north-west of the wood is the hermitage of S. Eugène, at the fringe of the forest. It is as though suspended above the valley, standing on the limestone, which here lies in narrow, almost horizontal beds. Architecturally it is nothing. Only a poor, ruinous, abandoned structure; no hermit has occupied it for many years.

According to tradition, for many generations the wood was inhabited by a family, the head of which assumed the title of King of Païolive. Louis XIV. was informed of the existence of this sovereign in a corner of his province of Languedoc, and ordered that the man should be arrested and tried. Several detachments of troops were sent to surround the wood and to explore its depths. No one was to be seen in it; all was silent, till a crack of a firearm sounded, and a man fell. After a quarter of an hour, those who had ventured into the labyrinth struggled out, but with the loss of ten of their number, each of whom had received a ball in his heart. The troops retired, and as there was no question of rebellion against royal authority or of religion, Louis was content to let the matter rest; only he succeeded in entering into communication with the petty king by means of the hermit of S. Eugène, and requiring of him as recognition of suzerainty annually a pair of partridges—a tribute, however, that was never paid. The succession of kings of Païolive continued till the Revolution, when it was not safe on French soil for any man to bear a royal title, and the last king, rather than run the risk of losing his head on the scaffold, assumed the red cap and sank into a plain citoyen.

In 1792, the Royalist bands of the Count of Saillans took refuge in the wood of Paiolive, confident that it would not be possible for the Republican troops to dislodge them, and their head-quarters was in the Grotto of Gleyzasse, three hundred feet above the river. The Directory of Ardèche, however, found means of securing the conspirators when they met at the Château of Jalès, and they were taken to Les Vans and there put to death, the Count among them. Jalès had belonged to the Templars, but these, sacrificed by Clement V. to the cupidity of Louis the Fair, were taken to Aigues Mortes and there burnt alive on false charges. To the Templars succeeded the Knights of Malta. The most celebrated commander among these, who resided at Jalès, was the Bailli of Suffren, whom the vassals complained of as devouring forty pounds of meat in a day. But the Bailli was a fire-eater as well, and his exploits in the Mediterranean, fighting the English, form the theme of a ballad introduced by Mistral into "Mirèio." The Bailli was killed in a duel by the Marquess of Mirepoix, in 1788.

                      "Our Captain was Bailly Suffren;
                          We had sail'd from Toulon,
                       Five-hundred seafaring Provençeaux,
                          Stout-hearted and strong:
'Twas the sweet hope of meeting the English that made our hearts burn,
And till we had thrashed them we vowed we would never return."

And, of course, these stout-hearted Provençeaux thrash the English like curs, just as our bluejackets always thrash the French—in ballads.

Between the wood and Berrias on the bare plateau are many dolmens.

On the lovely day in early spring upon which I visited the Bois de Païolive, the inventories were being taken in the churches of Banne and Berrias. As we drove to the wood the bell of Banne church was pealing the alarm; as we left, that of Berrias was sounding, and we drove thither. The village was occupied by soldiers, and these surrounded the church, and held every avenue, whilst a body of gendarmes with axes smashed the barricaded west door. Out- side the village was an ambulance wagon, rendered necessary, as the people were offering a strenuous resistance. In the adjoining village of Beaulieu on the preceding day they had thrown quicklime in the faces of the assailants, and had blinded one soldier, who had to be conveyed to the hospital.

The hostility provoked by the Government by ordering the taking of the inventories of the contents of the churches is not very explicable, for there was no threat made of confiscation. The reasons given me were these. At the first Revolution every church had been pillaged and its treasures seized. Only in some cases had certain of these latter been saved before the sacred buildings were plundered, by being confided to the custody of reliable men in the parish, who restored them when the churches were reopened for divine worship. The people suppose that the taking of the inventories is a preliminary step to confiscation, and to protect the State against the secretion of any of the church treasures when that confiscation takes place. As, however, it is exceedingly unlikely that such a step will occur, the violent excitement over the taking of the inventories is not very reasonable. "We," say the people, "our fathers and grandsires, gave the furniture to the church; it belongs to the Commune, and not to the State."

The attitude assumed by the bishops and curés has been diverse. Here the taking of the inventory has been opposed by force, there permitted under protest. At Lodève, where very fine new wrought-iron gates have lately been added to the porch, the clergy took good care not to fasten them and expose them to be damaged, but bolted the inner door of wood, very thin, and easily cut through. That was the form of their protest. At Alais the curé received the State officials at the door and contented himself with reading a written remonstrance, after which he drew aside and allowed them to do their duty.

Actually, the curés in most places took no lead in the demonstrations, which were often organised by reactionaries so as to excite hostility to the Republic, in view of the approaching elections for the Chamber of Deputies. They failed utterly in their purpose, as the election, when it did take place, proved to demonstration. But in many a country place the resistance was due to the excited passions of the people ungoaded on by their superiors. A man said to me when I asked him the object of these futile resistances to authority: "Mais, il nous faut, à tout prix—des émotions."