Varia/The Fête de Gayant

< Varia(Redirected from The Fête de Gayant)


As far as I have ever seen provincial France, it appears to be perpetually en fête. Religiously or patriotically, it is always celebrating something; and it does so in a splendid whole-hearted fashion, concentrating all the energy of a town into a few days or a few hours of ardent demonstration. Les fêtes religieuses are without doubt the most charming and picturesque; and the smaller the place, the more curious and time-honored the observances. It is wonderful, too, to note the resources of even the poorest community. Auray, with its few straggling streets, is little better than a village; yet here, on the Fête du Sacré Cœur, I saw a procession so beautiful and so admirably organized that it would have done credit to any city of France. Scores of priests and hundreds of weather-beaten men and women moved slowly through the narrow lanes, or knelt before the rude altars that had been erected at every turning. Not a house in Auray that had not been hung with linen sheets; not a rood of ground that was not strewn with flowers and fresh green leaves. Bands of little girls, dressed in blue and white, surrounded the statue of the Madonna, and the crimson banner of the Sacred Heart was borne by tiny boys, with red sashes around their waists and wreaths of red roses on their curly heads, looking absurdly like Bonfigli's flower-crowned angels. One solemn child personated the infant St. John. He wore a scanty goatskin, and no more. A toy lamb, white and woolly, was tucked under his arm, and a slender cross grasped in his baby hand. By his side walked an equally youthful Jeanne d'Arc, attired in a blue spangled skirt and a steel breastplate, with a helmet, a nodding plume, a drawn sword, and a pair of gauzy wings to indicate that approaching beatification which is the ardent desire of every French Catholic.

"Notre mère, la France, est de Jeanne la fille,"

and she is to be congratulated on so blithely forgetting the unfilial nature of her conduct. At every altar benediction was given to the kneeling throng, and a regiment of boys beat their drums and sounded their trumpets shrilly to warn those who were too far away for sight that the sacred moment had come. It seemed incredible that so small a place could have supplied so many people, until I remembered what an American is wont to forget,—that in Auray there were no two ways of thinking. Spectators, affected or disaffected, there were none. Everybody old enough and strong enough to walk joined in the procession; just as everybody at Lourdes joined in the great procession of the Fête Dieu, when the hundreds were multiplied to thousands, when the mountain side at dusk seemed on fire with myriads of twinkling tapers, and the pilgrim chant, plaintive, monotonous, and unmusical, was borne by the night winds far away over the quiet valley of the Gave.

On these occasions I have been grateful to the happy accident, or design, that made me a participant in such scenes. But there have been other days when provincial towns en fête meant the acme of discomfort for wearied travelers. It was no especial grievance, indeed, that Compiègne should continue to celebrate the 14th of July long after it had merged into the 15th, by playing martial airs, and firing off guns directly under my bedroom window. I felt truly that I should have been but little better off elsewhere; for there is not a corner of France, nor a single French dependency, that does not go mad annually with delight because a rabble destroyed one of the finest fortresses in Europe. But it did seem hard that we should reach Amiens just when the combined attractions of the races and a fair had filled that quiet spot with tumult and commotion. Amiens is not a town that takes kindly to excitement. It is contemplative in character, and boisterous gayety sits uneasily upon its tranquil streets. Even the landlady of our very comfortable hotel appeared to recognize and deplore the incongruity of the situation. Her house was full to overflowing; her dining-room could not hold its famished guests; yet, instead of rejoicing, she bewailed the hungry crowds who had wrecked the harmony of her well-ordered inn.

"If madame had only come two days ago," she protested, "madame would then have seen Amiens at its best; and, moreover, she would have been properly waited on. My servants are trained, they are attentive, they are polite, they would have taken care that madame had everything she required. But now! What, then, does madame think of this so sad disorder? "

Madame assured her she thought the servants were doing all that could be required of mortal men; and, indeed, these nimble creatures fairly flew from guest to guest, and from room to room. I never saw one of them even lapse into a walk. I tried to describe to her the behavior of domestics in our own land, recalling to memory a sudden invasion of one of the Yellowstone Park hotels by a band of famished tourists,—their weary waiting, their humble attitude, their meek appeals for food, and the stolid indifference of the negro waiters to their most urgent needs. But this imperious little Frenchwoman merely held up her hands in horror at such anarchical conduct. A mob of communists engaged in demolishing the cathedral of Amiens would have seemed less terrible to her than a mob of servants refusing to wait swiftly upon hungry travelers. She was so serious in her anxiety for our comfort that her mind appeared visibly relieved when, on the second day, we decided that we too were weary of noise and excitement, and would move on that afternoon to Douai. There, at least, we told ourselves, we should find the drowsy quiet we desired. The image of the dull old town—which we had never seen—rose up alluringly before us. We pictured even the station, tranquil and empty like so many stations in rural France, with a leisurely little engine sauntering in occasionally, and a solitary porter roused from his nap, and coming forward, surprised but smiling, to handle our numerous bags. These pretty fancies soothed our nerves and beguiled our idleness until the three hours' trip was over, and Douai was reached at last. Douai! Yes; but Douai in a state of apparent frenzy, with a surging crowd whose uproar could be heard above our engine's shriek,—hundreds of people rushing hither and thither, climbing into cars, clamoring over friends, laughing, shouting, blowing trumpets, and behaving generally in a fashion which made Amiens silent by comparison. For one moment we stood stunned by the noise and confusion; and then the horrid truth forced itself upon our unwilling minds: Douai was en fête.

We made our way through the throng of people into the square outside the station, and took counsel briefly with one another. We were tired, we were hungry, and it was growing late; but should we ignore these melancholy conditions, and push bravely on for Lille? Lille, says Baedeker, has "two hundred thousand inhabitants," and cities of that size have grown too big for play. We thought of the discomforts which probably awaited us at Douai in a meagre inn, crowded with noisy bourgeois, and were turning resolutely back, when suddenly there came the sound of drums playing a gay and martial air, and in another minute, surrounded by a clamorous mob, the Sire de Gayant and his family moved slowly into sight.

Thirty feet high was the Sire de Gayant, and his nodding plumes overtopped the humble roofs by which he passed. His steel breastplate glittered in the evening sun; his mighty mace looked like a May-pole; his countenance was grave and stern. The human pygmies by his side betrayed their insignificance at every step. They ran backward and forward, making all the foolish noises they could. They rode on hobby-horses. They played ridiculous antics. They were but children, after all, gamboling irresponsibly at the feet of their own Titanic toy. Behind the Sire de Gayant came his wife, in brocaded gown, with imposing farthingale and stomacher. Pearls wreathed her hair and fell upon her massive bosom. Earrings a handbreadth in size hung from her ears, and a fan as big as a fire-screen was held lightly by a silver chain. Like Lady Corysande, "her approaching mien was full of majesty;" yet she looked affable and condescending, too, as befitted a dame of parts and noble birth. Her children manifested in their bearing more of pride and less of dignity. There was even something theatrical in the velvet cap and swinging cloak of her only son; and Mademoiselle Gayant held her head erect in conscious complacency, while her long brown ringlets fluttered in the breeze.

"Of course the village girls
Who envy me my curls,"

she seemed to murmur as she passed stiffly by.

Happily, however, there was still another member of this ancient family, more popular and more well beloved than all the rest,—Mademoiselle Thérèse, "la petite Binbin" who for two hundred years has been the friend and idol of every child in Douai. A sprightly and attractive little girl was Mademoiselle Thérèse, barely eight feet high, and wearing a round cap and spotless pinafore. In her hand she carried a paper windmill, that antique Douai toy with which we see the angels and the Holy Innocents amusing themselves in Bellegambe's beautiful old picture, the Altar-piece of Anchin. She ran hither and thither with uncertain footsteps, pausing now and then to curtsy prettily to some admiring friends in a doorway; and whenever the pressure of the crowd stopped her progress, the little children clamored to be held up in their fathers' arms to kiss her round, smooth cheeks. One by one they were lifted in the air, and one by one I saw them put their arms around la Binbin's neck, and embrace her so heartily that I wondered how she kept herself clean and uncrumpled amid these manifold caresses. As she went by, the last of that strange procession, we moved after her, without another thought of Lille and its comfortable hotels. Comfort, forsooth! Were we not back in the fifteenth century, when comfort had still to be invented? Was that not the Song of Gayant which the drums were beating so gayly? And who yet ever turned their backs upon Douai when the famous Ranz des Douaisiens was ringing triumphantly in their ears?

For this little French town, smaller than many a ten-year-old city in the West, has an ancient and honorable past; and her martial deeds have been written down on more than one page of her country's history. The Fête de Gayant is old; so old that its origin has been lost in an obscurity which a number of industrious scholars have tried in vain to penetrate.

"Ce que c'est que Gayant? Ma foi, je n'en sais rien.
Ce que c'est que Gayant? Nul ne le sait en Flandre."

The popular belief is that a knight of gigantic size fought valorously in behalf of Douai when the city, spent and crippled, made her splendid defense against Louis XI., and that his name is still preserved with gratitude by the people whom he helped to save. Certain it is that the fête dates from 1479, the year that Louis was repulsed; and whether or not a real Gayant ever stood upon the walls, there is little doubt that the procession celebrates that hard-won victory. But the Church has not been backward in claiming the hero for her own, and identifying him with St. Maurand, the blessed patron of Douai. St. Maurand, it is said, fought for the welfare of his town as St. Iago fought for the glory of Spain; and there is a charming legend to show how keenly he watched over the people who trusted to his care. In 1556, on the night following the feast of the Epiphany, Admiral Coligny planned to surprise the city, which, ignorant of its danger, lay sleeping at the mercy of its foe. But just as St. George, St. Mark, and St. Nicholas aroused the old fisherman, and went out into the storm to do battle with demons for the safety of Venice, so St. Maurand prepared to defeat the crafty assailant of Douai. At midnight he appeared by the bedside of the monk whose duty it was to ring the great bells of St. Amé, and bade him arise and call the brethren to matins. The monk, failing to recognize the august character of his visitor, protested drowsily that it was too early, and that, after the fatigue and lengthy devotions of the feast, it would be but humanity to allow the monastery another hour of slumber. St. Maurand, however, insisted so sternly and so urgently that the poor lay brother, seeing no other way to rid himself of importunity, arose, stumbled into the belfry, and laid his hands upon the dangling ropes. But hardly had he given them the first faint pull when, with a mighty vibration, the bells swung to and fro as though spirits were hurling them through the air. So furiously were they tossed that the brazen clangor of their tongues rang out into the night with an intensity of menace that awoke every man in Douai to a swift recognition of his peril. Soldiers sprang to arms; citizens swarmed out of their comfortable homes; and while the bells still pealed forth their terrible summons, those who were first at the defenses saw for one instant the blessed St. Maurand standing in shining armor on the ramparts, guarding the city of his adoption as St. Michael guards the hidden gates of paradise.

So the Church will have it that the knight Gayant is no other than the holy son of Adalbald; and as for Madame Gayant and her family, who seem like a questionable encumbrance upon saintship, it is clearly proved that Gayant had neither wife nor child until 1665, when the good people of Douai abruptly ended his cheerful days of celibacy. Indeed, there are historians so lost to all sense of honor and propriety as to insist that this beloved Titan owes his origin neither to Flemish heroism nor to the guardianship of saints, but to the efforts made by the Spanish conquerors of Douai to establish popular pastimes resembling those of Spain. According to these base-minded antiquarians, Gayant was an invention of Charles V., who added a variety of pageants to the yearly procession with which the city celebrated its victory over Louis XI.; and when the Spaniards were finally driven from the soil, the knight remained as a popular hero, vaguely associated with earlier deeds of arms. That he was an object of continual solicitude—and expense—is proven by a number of entries in the archives of Douai. In 1665, seven florins were paid to the five men who carried him through the streets, and twenty pastars to the two boys who danced before him, to say nothing of an additional outlay of six florins for the white dancing-shoes provided for them. Moreover, this being his wedding year, two hundred and eighty-three florins—a large sum for those days—were spent on Madame Gayant's gown, besides seventeen florins for her wig, and over forty florins for her jewels and other decorations. A wife is ever a costly luxury, but when she chances to be over twenty feet high, her trousseau becomes a matter for serious consideration. In 1715, the price of labor having risen, and the knight's family having increased, it cost thirty-three florins to carry them in procession, Mademoiselle Thérèse, who was then too young to walk, being drawn in a wagon, probably for the first time. The repainting of faces, the repairing of armor, the replacing of lost pearls or broken fans, are all accounted for in these careful annals; and it is through them, also, that we learn how the Church occasionally withdrew her favor from the Sire de Gayant, and even went so far as to place him under a ban. M. Guy de Sève, Bishop of Arras, in 1699, and M. Louis François Marc-Hilaire de Conzié, Bishop of Arras in 1770, were both of the opinion that the fête had grown too secular, not to say licentious in its character, and, in spite of clamorous discontent, the procession was sternly prohibited. But French towns are notably wedded to their idols. Douai never ceased to love and venerate her gigantic knight; and after a time, perhaps through the good offices of St. Maurand, he overcame his enemies, reëstablished his character with the Church, and may be seen to-day, as we had the happiness of seeing him, carried in triumph through those ancient streets that welcomed him four hundred years ago.

The Fête de Gayant is not a brief affair, like Guy Fawkes day or the Fourth of July. It lasts from the 8th of July until the 11th, and is made the occasion of prolonged rejoicing and festivity. In the public square, boys are tilting like knights of old, or playing antiquated games that have descended to them from their forefathers. Greased poles hung with fluttering prizes tempt the unwary; tiny donkeys, harnessed and garlanded with flowers, are led around by children; and a discreet woman in spangled tights sits languidly on a trapeze, waiting for the sous to be collected before beginning her performance. From this post of vantage she espies us standing on the outskirts of the crowd, and sends her little son, a pretty child, brave in gilt and tinsel, to beg from us.

As it chances, I have given all my sous to earlier petitioners, and I open my collapsed pocket book to show him how destitute I am. With a swift corresponding gesture he turns his little tin canister upside down, and shakes it plaintively, proving that it is even emptier than my purse. This appeal is irresistible. In the dearth of coppers, a silver coin is found for him, which his mother promptly acknowledges by going conscientiously through the whole of her slender répertoire. Meanwhile, the child chatters fluently with us. He travels all the time, he tells us, and has been to Italy and Switzerland. His father can speak Italian and a little English. He likes the English people best of all,—a compliment to our supposed nationality; they are the richest, most generous, most charming and beautiful ladies in the world. He says this, looking, not at my companions, who in some sort merit the eulogium, but straight at me, with a robust guile that is startling in its directness. I have given the franc. To me is due the praise. Poor little lad! It must be a precarious and slender income earned by that jaded mother, even in time of fête; for provincial France, though on pleasure bent, hath, like Mrs. Gilpin, a very frugal mind. She does not fling money about with British prodigality, nor consume gallons of beer with German thirst, nor sink her scanty savings in lottery tickets with Italian fatuity. No, she drinks her single glass of wine, or cider, or syrup and water, and looks placidly at all that may be seen for nothing, and experiences the joys of temperance. She knows that her strength lies in husbanding her resources, and that vast are the powers of thrift.

Meanwhile, each day brings its allotted diversions. Gayly decorated little boats are sailing on the Scarpe, and fancying themselves a regatta. Archers are contesting for prizes in the Place St. Amé, where, hundreds of years ago, their forefathers winged their heavy bolts. A carrousel vélocipédique is to be followed by a ball; carrier pigeons are being freed in the Place Carnot; a big balloon is to ascend from the esplanade; and excellent concerts are played every afternoon in the pretty Jardin des Plantes. It is hard to make choice among so many attractions, especially as two days out of the. four the Sire de Gayant and his family march through the streets, and draw us irresistibly after them. But we see the archers, and the pigeons, and the balloon, which takes three hours to get ready, and three, minutes to be out of sight, carrying away in its car a grizzled aeronaut, and an adventurous young woman who embraces all her friends with dramatic fervor, and unfurls the flag of France as she ascends, to the unutterable admiration of the crowd. We hear a concert, also, sitting comfortably in the shade, and thinking how pleasant it would be to have a glass of beer to help the music along. But the natural affinity, the close and enduring friendship between music and beer which the Germans understand so well, the French have yet to discover. They are learning to drink this noble beverage—in small doses—and to forgive it its Teutonic flavor. I have seen half a dozen men sitting in front of a restaurant at Lille or at Rouen, each with a tiny glass of beer before him; but I have never beheld it poured generously out to the thunderous accompaniment of a band. Even at Marseilles, where, faithful to destiny, we encountered a musical fête so big and grand that three hotels rejected us, and the cabmen asked five francs an hour,—even amid this tumult of sweet sounds, from which there was no escaping, we failed ignominiously when we sought to hearten ourselves to a proper state of receptivity with beer.

At the Douai concerts no one dreamed of drinking anything. The townspeople sat in decorous little groups under the trees, talking furtively when the loudness of the clarionets permitted them, and reserving their enthusiastic applause for the Chant de Gayant, with which, as in honor bound, each entertainment came to a close. Young girls, charmingly dressed, lingered by their mothers' sides, never even lifting their dark eyes to note the fine self-appreciation of the men who passed them. If they spoke at all, it was in fluttering whispers to one another; if they looked at anything, it was at one another's gowns. They are seldom pretty, these sallow daughters of France; yet, like Gautier's Carmen, their ugliness has in it a grain of salt from that ocean out of which Venus rose. No girls in the whole wide world lead duller lives than theirs. They have neither the pleasures of a large town nor the freedom of a little one. They may not walk with young companions, even of their own sex. They may not so much as to go church alone. Novels, romances, poetry, plays, operas, all things that could stimulate their imaginations and lift them out of the monotonous routine of life, are sternly prohibited. Perpetual espionage forbids the healthy growth of character and faculty, which demand some freedom and solitude for development. The strict seclusion of a convent school is exchanged for a colorless routine of small duties and smaller pleasures. And yet these young girls, bound hand and foot by the narrowest conventionalities, are neither foolish nor insipid. A dawning intelligence, finer than humored precocity can ever show, sits on each tranquil brow. When they speak, it is with propriety and grace. In the restrained alertness of their brown eyes, in their air of simplicity and self-command, in the instinctive elegance of their dress, one may read, plainly written, the subtle possibilities of the future. That offensive and meaningless phrase, the woman problem, is seldom heard in France, where all problems solve themselves more readily than elsewhere. Midway between the affectionate subservience of German wives and daughters and the gay arrogance of our own, with more self-reliance than the English, and a clearer understanding of their position than all the other three have ever grasped, Frenchwomen find little need to wrangle for privileges which they may easily command. The resources of tact and good taste are well-nigh infinite, and to them is added a capacity for administration and affairs which makes the French gentleman respect his wife's judgment, and places the French shopkeeper at the mercy of his spouse. In whatever walk of life these young provincial girls are destined to tread, they will have no afflicting doubts as to the limits of their usefulness. They will probably never even pause to ask themselves what men would do without them, nor to point a lesson vaingloriously from the curious fact that Douai gave Gayant a wife.