THERE cannot be a more romantic and fairy-like place than the old city of Le Puy. All that country, two or three thousand years ago, must have been a complete land of fires; there are innumerable mountains--Puys as they call them--each the crater of an extinct volcano; and for miles and miles you may trace the streams of lava which overwhelmed many a fertile valley, and have, in after ages, been quarried for many a noble church. The highest of these, the Puy de Dome, looks down on fifteen or twenty distinct craters; so high it is, that as the country proverb runs,--
"If you set up Dome on Dome,
You would see the gates of Rome."
When the Church first asserted her right to this province, and the Gospel had been preached in that which was then called Velaunum, by S. Martial the Apostle of Aquitain; S. George, the Bishop at that time, took care to hallow more especially every place which had been profaned by heathen superstition. There is a vast rock, called the Rocher de Corneille, round which the whole city of Le Puy clusters, and which had been in former ages dedicated to Diana. On its steep ascent they founded a noble cathedral; its west end looks down on a flight of 134 steps, the number of the Psalms, to the end of the last Song of Degrees. So, in a distant view, it seems to hang midway between heaven and earth, over the city: and as almost every church in the middle ages claimed its own peculiar title, as the illustrious and excellent Church of Sarum,--the illustrious and holy Church of Vienne,--the illustrious and patriarchal Church of Bruges--so this was the illustrious and angelical Church of Le Puy, because the legend went, that its site had been pointed out by an angel.
Now in the same city there is a sharp steep pinnacle of rock, jutting up more like a tower than a mountain, the summit of which was long held to be inaccessible. It happened that some few years before that fatal year 1000, which every one then believed would be the end of the world, a good old dean of the Cathedral was walking with a deacon near the base of this unscalable rock.
"I should like," he said, "Bertrand, that before the LORD'S second coming, this rock also should be dedicated to His honour and glory. I had thought, at first, of setting up a Cross on its summit; but now I am rather minded to erect a little chapel there, and to dedicate it, as is only fitting, to the Archangel, and Archchancellor of Paradise, Michael."
For the Churches of all high places were dedicated to S. Michael, in consequence of the legend which told of his appearance on Mount Gargano in Apulia: which appearance was said to have taken place on the 29th of September; whence Michaelmas Day.
"It is surely a holy thought, good Father," replied the younger man; "but without a miracle the thing is impossible. It is said indeed, that, once or twice in former years, a mortal foot has ventured to scale that peak, but our wiser men disbelieve even such a tale; and how to erect a chapel on a pinnacle where an eagle could hardly find a resting place, utterly surpasses my comprehension."
"Far be it from me, my son," said the old man, "to pretend to the gift of miracles. But I hold that few things are impossible to zeal and perseverance in GOD'S service; and if He will but spare me life and strength for five years, by that time the chapel shall be accomplished and dedicated."
He meant what he said, and he kept his word. All the country far and near was astonished by the report that the Dean of the Angelical Church was about to erect a sanctuary on the Needle Rock. Bands of labourers came trooping in; hundreds of oxen poured into the city with the drays on which the stones for the building were laded: Master Rambert, a great engineer, who had been even as far as Paris, sat under the rock with his papers and his plans; and before the summer was over, they had begun to cut a winding staircase on the outward shoulder of the crag itself. Winter came on, and the work of necessity was suspended: for none could labour in the midst of the rushing mighty wind which always assails that rock: and besides, the workmen had to return to their lonely villages amidst distant forests, before the sharpness of the cold should bring in huge droves of wolves to prowl and to ravage.
But spring came on again; the sweet valleys of Auvergne were once more bright with their countless harebells, and even the gloomy heights of the Cevennes put on their gladdest verdure. And now the workmen again gathered round the rock; the ascending staircase before autumn attained a dizzy height; and some of the more sanguine workmen had hoped that before winter closed in the crane might be erected on the very summit. That however, was the work of the third season. The highest peak was planed and pared down till it afforded space for a tiny chapel and a needle-like tower: and thenceforward, night and day, there was the creaking and screaming of the crane, as block after block was wound up from below and safely imbedded in its appointed place. The front of S. Michel's rock was the resort of loungers all the day long. A seneschal of good King Robert expressed his regret that his master had not built a castle on the summit: old Manasseh, the Jewish banker, calculated the interest he might have made, had he--as we should now say--contracted for the whole undertaking: the Bishop Stephen, as he watched the masons at work below, and the gradual ascent of the stone to its place in the chapel, quoted that verse of the dedication hymn:
"Many a blow and biting sculpture Polished well these stones elect, In their places now compacted By the Heavenly Architect, Who therewith hath willed for ever That His palace should be decked."
And so it came to pass that before the expiration of the five years, the chapel was completed, and was dedicated on that other feast of S. Michael which fell in the spring. Great concourse was there of nobles and ecclesiastics and common people to the festival: and great congratulations and praise were bestowed on the good old Dean who had so boldly imagined, and so stoutly superintended, the work.
After Compline, they descended from the height: the old man returned to his own house in the dwelling of the Canons, and thanked GOD that he had been spared to the time he had fixed, and had thus accomplished his task. The brother whose turn it was, went at the eighth hour of the night to call him for Matins; and behold, he had fallen asleep in the LORD.
Thus it was that the chapel of S. Michael was founded at Le Puy: but I must take you on six hundred years, before we come to the period of my story.
It was when the Calvinists had risen, under various leaders, in most parts of France,--when they were destroying Abbeys, overthrowing crosses, devastating shrines, but above all things burning every relic that they could reach, that one of the fiercest of their leaders, the Baron des Adrets, led a horde from the Cevennes against Le Puy. Then followed all the customary scenes of devastation; churches sacked and burnt; crucifixes and images dragged through the streets, and thrown with every insult into the river; priests murdered before the very altar; and the choice of apostasy or death given to those who were unable or unwilling to ransom themselves from the Huguenots.
It was a fine afternoon in May. The Baron, with several of his principal officers, had, as was a favourite practice of his, ascended the highest crag in the city, namely the Mount S. Michael, and there held a kind of court for the examination of his prisoners. Ten or twelve, refusing to forsake the religion of their fathers, had been compelled by him to leap from the parapet that surrounded the chapel, and their mutilated remains were scattered at the foot of the rock or of the jutting crags which spring out from its side. One or two had witnessed their apostasy by trampling on the crucifix: and one had saved himself by a ready answer which afterwards passed into a proverb. Compelled as the others had been to spring from the parapet, he had twice walked forward to its edge and twice retreated.
"Two chances is too much for any one," said the Baron des Adrets.
"I will wager," replied the prisoner, very coolly, "that you would not do it in ten:" and the Baron's fancy was tickled at the idea, and he bade the man go about his business.
But now, some of the soldiers were leading up the steps the Sieur de Bretteville, who had been superintendent of the estates of the Cathedral, then many and valuable, and who was one of the firmest supporters of the Church in those troublous times. With him came his little son Louis, a boy of some eleven or twelve years old: the soldiers had tried to drive him away, but he persisted in following his father to the very last.
"You are the Sieur de Bretteville?" said the Huguenot leader.
"I am," he said, firmly.
"And you manage the estates of those drones whom we have just driven out?"
"If you mean that I was superintendent of the estates of the Church, I was," replied the prisoner.
"And lived upon the fat of the land, I dare say," continued Des Adrets. "Well, and so you shall still; for I will continue you in your office, on one condition: join us, and you shall have the management of the same estates, with the same salary as before."
"And lose my own soul into the bargain," answered De Bretteville. "No, Monsieur le Baron, you must make a better offer than that. I have always had the credit of being a tolerably good financier, but it does not want much reckoning to estimate such a bargain."
"But you must take something else into consideration," cried Des Adrets in a fury. "Do as I tell you,--trample on that crucifix at once, or as sure as the LORD liveth" (it was his favourite oath) "you take the leap that so many of your betters have taken."
"Then my choice is very easily made," answered De Bretteville. "It is just as easy to meet death on a precipice as in a field of battle; and you know, Baron, that I never shrunk from it there."
"No," returned Des Adrets; "but you had the chance of escape there; whereas I defy all your saints to save you here."
"Perhaps you defy GOD, too," cried little Louis, boldly. "I am sure my father is not afraid of you, for I am not the least afraid of you myself."
"I have a good mind to send you after him," said the Baron.
"You would not frighten me if you did," said Louis; "and I would leap over the parapet with all my heart if I could save my father's life by doing it."
"And perhaps you think GOD could save you if you did?" inquired the Baron.
"I know He could," said the boy.
One of the Huguenot officers whispered something into the ear of his general.
"Ha! ha!" cried Des Adrets; "not a bad idea. Hark ye, youngster; you talk about GOD'S being able to preserve you. I will make you an offer: I pledge you my word as a gentleman, that I will set your father at liberty without ransom, if you have courage to walk round this rock outside the parapet."
"Whether I get round, or whether I fall?" asked the boy.
"Whether you get round, or whether you fall."
"I will not hear of it," said De Bretteville. "I had rather a thousand times be thrown over myself."
"I dare say you would," laughed Des Adrets, "but that is nothing to me. Your son here shall make the attempt, or I will tie him and you together, and fling you over at once."
"Then GOD'S will be done," said De Bretteville; "for without a miracle it is impossible that any one can pass round the rock."
"It is not impossible," said Louis, "if GOD holds me up. I am ready, Monsieur le Baron, this very moment."
It is enough to turn any but the strongest head to look over the parapet in front of the little landing place where the Baron and his officers were sitting. Behind them,--I can see it now, as I saw it no long time since,--that curious Romanesque door, with its knots of foliage, its quaint mouldings, and grotesque saints. Over the edge you look sheer down to the foot of the crag, all steep sharp rock, except where a harebell has found a precarious anchoring place in some ledge or cranny. The builders had raised a parapet round this little enclosed square, but elsewhere the chapel rose sheer from the rock itself, without any external ledge or passage, and affording only a projection here and there of some little point or notch of rock on which the foot might rest. Had the depth below been three feet instead of three hundred, you would have said that the thing was impossible: how much more with that dizzy yawning gulf beneath, and that fierce wind rioting, as it always does, round the rock!
"Stop," cried the Baron, "we cannot see from here. De l'Aigle," he continued, addressing his lieutenant, "you and I will go up to the top of the tower, and then we can watch him round."
"Or down," said De l'Aigle.
"Put him over as soon as you see us up there," said Des Adrets to the rest of his attendants.
I leave you to think how earnestly the poor father prayed, that the GOD Who had promised,--"In their hands shall they bear thee up, that thou dash not thy foot against a stone," would fulfil that promise now; and how Louis rejoiced and exulted that, let what might happen to him, his father's life was at all events safe.
"There they are," cried one of the men, pointing up to the tower. "Now, young gentleman, I would not be in your place for this rock if it were made of gold."
"Wait a moment," cried Louis, "till I have taken off my shoes and stockings." And he began to do so.
"Ho! ho! so after all you are afraid," cried another of the soldiers.
"You shall see," answered the boy, deliberately getting over the parapet, keeping his right hand on the coping, and standing where you would have said there was scarcely room for a fly to perch. He knew the great rule in all such dizzy places, (as good a rule in earthly as it is in spiritual difficulties,) to look up, never to look down. And that which had at first seemed a sheer precipice beneath, and a perpendicular wall above,--how little places to tread upon, how little roots and branches to hang on by, seemed to present themselves to him as he tried to move forward! No doubt that tiny bush which he now clutches, and which had anchored itself where a stone had fallen from the wall, had been there planted by His especial command, without Whom not a sparrow falls to the ground; no doubt the ledge of rock on which he now treads had been moulded, so to speak, with that very intent when the rock itself first took form and consistence. And so, sometimes holding on to a stunted furze bush, sometimes to a tiny sapling oak, sometimes, more precarious support still, to a foxglove root, Louis had won his way half round the rock.
"Upon my honour, that's a brave little fellow," said Des Adrets, from the tower.
"He will deserve his life if he wins it," cried De l'Aigle; "but he won't, my Lord, he won't. Look, he has come to the corner, and there is not a blade of grass to cling on by."
It was very true. When Louis had reached the angle under the tower, and looked half fearfully, half hopefully, round its sharp edge, there was, it is true, a projection of rock three quarters of an inch broad for his foot, but for his hand there was not one twig, one flower, one blade. No possible courage, no possible skill, could balance the body against such frightful odds; and for one moment, I must confess, with the horrors of inevitable death before him, Louis repented that he had made the offer. He cast his eyes downwards, and beheld, some three feet below, a great old gurgoyle jutting out from the face of the rock; a horrible dragon it was, with fierce angular eyes, a beak-like nose, and wings as of a bat. Its back was flat and formed to admit the passage of the rain-water that flowed from the chapel enclosure; and from that rock it had peered for nearly six hundred years, till it had become yellow with the lichens that encrusted it, and rough with the hundreds of storms that had beaten upon it. Some four feet above it, but rather in front of it, was a young holly bush. Louis looked at them both. His only chance was to drop on the gurgoyle, and at the same moment to catch the bush. But then there were the fearful chances that he might miss one or both altogether, or that old age might have decayed the stone. But if it were dangerous to go on, it was impossible to turn back; and whatever risk there might be in the attempt, there was almost as much in delay; when one moment's dizziness would be certain death. One short prayer to GOD, and Louis left go of the root which he was holding, and dropped. Even the Baron and his lieutenant drew a long breath as he seemed for a second to lose his balance, and then righted himself and stood firm upon the gurgoyle, grasping on tightly to the holly bush. Thenceforward his path, however horribly dangerous, was not impossible; and quietly and steadily he crept onward, taking advantage of every vantage-nook, and finding the rock less perpendicular as he completed his circuit.
You may imagine the intense anxiety with which the father listened for any sound, for from the platform he could not see the advance of Louis. And when, at the end of about a quarter of an hour--but it seemed to him more like a year--those little arms were thrown over the parapet on the opposite side, and Louis was once more in safety, the strong man hid his face in his hands, and cried like a child.
"You are a brave little fellow," shouted the Baron, from the top of the tower; "and you have saved your father. Let the superintendent go where he will."
I know not whether it were partly in consequence of having witnessed this deliverance, but years after, at the age of eighty, the Baron des Adrets, after long repentance, died a Catholic.
And, if you ask for the moral of this story, it is:--that He Who raised up His clear SON from the dead, is able to raise us out of any risk,--to bring us back, even from the very jaws of hell: according to that saying,--"Accounting that GOD was able to raise him up even from the dead; from whence also he received him in a figure."