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A HUNT FOR A BATTLE-FIELD
EARLY in the afternoon of one of the scorching days, that seemed, judging from my experience, to be the unvarying type of weather in Lourdes during the summer, I took a train for the north. Soon the mountains and the big wooded hills were left behind, and we were traversing the endless levels of the western coast country.
A hundred and fifty years ago most of the great district lying between Spain and the river Garonne was a treeless waste that yearly grew more barren. The sun and wind vied with each other in making the land drier and dustier. From the stormy Bay of Biscay came tempests that raised the sand into great drifts as if it had been new-fallen snow, and sometimes the shifting dunes buried whole villages. The outlook for the region was very dark, and its inhabitants were in despair. Then came an inspector of roads, a man named Bremontier, with a plan for bettering things. He built fences, and on the leeward side of them sowed seeds of the broom, and behind the broom started young pines. The fences lasted long enough to protect the broom while it was getting well started, and that in turn sheltered with its hardy tangles the tender pine shoots until they were large enough to take care of themselves. The pines spread, and their roots bound the loose soil together. Then canals were made to drain the wet parts of this reclaimed land and carry the surplus water to the dry. What formerly was a desert is now a district of considerable value, which furnishes its population with a comfortable support.
It is a monotonous stretch as seen by the railroad traveller, always the same hour after hour — pine forests and scrubby barrens, and an occasional little woodland hamlet with a few cultivated fields round about. At the time of my journey, harvesting was in progress; and all through the afternoon and evening, till the daylight failed, I saw the peasants, both men and women, reaping their small plots of wheat and barley with their hand sickles. But the chief industry of the people is forestry — especially the collecting of resin. Every pine tree that has advanced beyond the sapling stage has a long, vertical gash cut through its bark, and at the base of each gash a scoop-shaped metal spout is inserted to convey the sluggish flow of the pitch to an earthen cup hung just below.
I kept a constant watch from the car windows in the hope of seeing some of the stilt-walkers, who have given this part of France a unique reputation. They are a real people, though I must say the descriptions of them sound more like fairy tales than sober fact. In the days before the pines covered the land the unstable sand drifting over the dry plains made ordinary walking difficult, and stilts were considered necessary for every one. At that time the inhabitants were mostly shepherds, and stilt-walking was a very useful accomplishment to the watchers of the straying flocks. But the region is not good agriculturally; the grass is thin and coarse, and the wool produced is so poor in quality that sheep-raising brings slender returns and of late years has been largely abandoned. The people have been gradually coming down to earth to work in the pines, yet there are parts of the country where stilt-walking is still general. An adult considers four feet to be about the proper elevation above terra firma, and a native with the balancing pole in his hands, which it is customary to carry, is almost as much at ease in going about on stilts as other folk are in walking, running, or standing on the ground. If I had known just where to find the stilt-walkers I would have sought them out, but I met no one who could tell me definitely — only that they dwelt somewhere among the dunes of the southwest coast.
The compartment in which I travelled was well filled — in part by my fellow-passengers and in larger part by their luggage. The French are an amazing people for carrying parcels on their journeys. They have bags, boxes, and bundles of all sizes and shapes; and the getting all this baggage into the apartment with them when they embark and out when they reach their destination is the occasion of no little hustle and excitement. If you sit next the door in the direct line of the inflow, or exodus, as the case may be, you have need of cast-iron shins and the temper of a saint.
During the journey some of the baggage goes on the shelves, some under the seats, and some in the narrow aisle on the floor in company with the passengers’ feet; but the seats themselves are the favorite place of bestowal, and the owners of the baggage show great reluctance to give up the space thus appropriated to newcomers.
When the journey is at all long the travellers carry a lunch — and this lunch always includes a bottle of wine, whether the repast is elaborate, or, in its solid portion, simply bread and cheese. A party of three, two women and a little girl, with whom I shared my seat, gave me a pretty good illustration of French lunching on the evening of this journey across the pine levels. They had bread, cold chicken, sweet biscuits, two bottles of wine, and one bottle of water. It made the apartment look like a small restaurant when they got all these things spread out, and they kept both their seat and the one opposite in a state of chaos for an hour or two with their leisurely sipping and nibbling. The bottle of water was for the little girl — not that she was to have no wine, but because she took it diluted. She did the diluting herself, and slopped all around the premises until, between her and her elders, the wine was gone. Then she threw the empty bottles and the chicken bones out of the window, and having eaten herself tired, cuddled down by her mother and went to sleep.
At Bordeaux these people got out, but others took their places, and, in preparation for a long night ride, the travellers removed their shoes and loosened their clothing. Many were going straight through to Paris, where they would arrive about breakfast time next day. The night was dark, and when the journey was resumed there was nothing but blackness outside the windows, while within was only one dim apartment .with its lounging occupants. Midnight came and passed, and still we were rushing along through the mirk, and by the time we reached Poitiers, where I had decided to stop, it seemed as if we must have travelled half across Europe.
My only reason for leaving the train at Poitiers was a desire to visit the famous battle-field of that name, where the English under the Black Prince fought the French five hundred years ago. All I knew as to the battlefield was that, according to the histories, it lay five miles north at a place called Maupertuis. It was three o’clock in the morning when I arrived at Poitiers, and the night was so far spent it seemed hardly worth while to go to a hotel. The grayness of the coming dawn was already apparent, and I concluded I could not do better than to seek out my battle-field while the day was still comfortably cool.
In accordance with this decision I left the station and took a northerly direction, confident that two hours’ walking would bring me into the vicinity of the scene of ancient combat. The town was asleep and silent, and I met no one on its streets save two or three laborers moving heavily off to their work, their every footfall startlingly distinct on the deserted pavements. After leaving the city behind, my way kept along the borders of a little river with banks grown up to bushes and tall poplars. The stream was sluggish, and on its mirror-like quiet the lilypads floated, while weeds and water plants were prolific in the shallows, and rushes grew thick and green in the ooze of the shores. Now and then a frog croaked with a hoarse, cracked voice, as if he had caught cold by staying out too much in the night damp. The birds were singing their early matins, and the east presently reddened with the promise of the sunrise, and then the sky took on the light pearly tints Corot was so fond of painting.
By four o’clock there began to be signs of life at the farmhouses I passed, and I thought it was time I found out something definite as to the location of the object of my quest. I stopped at a gate and hailed two men who were moving about the farmyard within. But they knew nothing of any such place as Maupertuis and my questions puzzled them very much. They had heard of the English, but did not seem to be aware there had ever been trouble between them and the French; and the older man of the two said if they had ever fought a battle in that region it was news to him. He was over sixty years old, and he could remember everything that had happened around Poitiers way back to when he was a small boy, and there had been no battle he was sure.
I took to the road again. The sun had risen, and farm work was now beginning in earnest. Smoke was rising from kitchen chimneys, there were already laborers in the fields, and the women were driving their cows and sheep to pasturage. At length I reached a village and, with the hope of getting breakfast, stopped at a little inn. The landlady was not in the habit of serving lunches, and all she could furnish was a loaf of bread and some hashed meat. The latter consisted mainly of bones chopped in small pieces, so that I was constantly setting my teeth on them unexpectedly. I found it was wise to proceed cautiously, and the bone sorting gave me time to consider what I would do next in hunting for my battle-field, If my authorities were correct it could not be far distant, and after I finished my bones I interviewed several of the villagers on the subject. But it was all a mystery to the local inhabitants. Maupertuis had apparently disappeared, and no legend of the old fierce fight remained.
On a venture I decided to turn from the road I was pursuing, and try the other side of the river. From the name of the village, Grand Pont, I judged the stream in that neighborhood must be spanned by a large bridge. If so, I failed to find it, for when I had crossed some low meadows, following what seemed to be the chief highway in the direction of the river, I found nothing at the end of my road save slight indications that there had formerly been a ferry at that spot. It was a pleasant nook, and I loitered by the waterside in the hope that chance would present a way of crossing. I had noted as I came from Poitiers an occasional small, flat-bottomed boat tied to the banks, and I thought some stray fisherman might come poling along in one of the craft, and then I would ask him to ferry me across. But the fisherman failed to materialize.
The only life in the immediate vicinity was a woman on her knees beating her washing among the tree shadows of the other shore. I could see a few houses across there back a little way on a hill slope, and presently a man came down from them driving half a dozen cows before him. The cows waded into the water, and stood knee deep drinking, while the man talked with the washerwoman. After the cows had been driven away and only the lone woman, monotonously scrubbing and pounding by the water’s edge was left, I grew discouraged and concluded to return to Grand Pont. I tried to take a different route from the one by which I had come, and so lost myself in a labyrinth of dwindling byways and meadow paths, each of which terminated in a thick hedge or impassable ditch. I was compelled as a last resort to seek out and be content with my original road.
As I approached the hamlet I was accosted by a man at work in a garden — one of the villagers I had previously questioned about the old battle-field. He took great interest in my search and, since I saw him . before, he had been thinking the matter over and had recalled three places within walking distance which began with the letter M. If he was me he would go to all of them, and, without a doubt, one of them would prove to be the right one. He named them over, and though they did not any of them sound at all like Maupertuis, I said I would go to the nearest of the three, and see if I could there get more exact information. The man was much pleased by my decision. Indeed, he was so happy in the assurance he had helped me that when we parted he took out his snuff-box, removed the cover, gave the contents a shake, and held it out toward me invitingly. I appreciated his friendliness, but snuff taking was not in my line, and I felt compelled to decline the honor. To make up for my delinquency the man took a double dose himself, and, hardened as he was to the snuff habit, had to sneeze as a consequence.
At the place which began with M, I was as much at a loss to discover the whereabouts of the apparently mythical battle-field as ever. No one knew the least thing about it or about Maupertuis, and I plodded on again at random. I besought enlightenment of all sorts of people whom I met on the road, of men working in the grain-fields, and of men cultivating potatoes and hoeing turnips, of a woman baiting her cow in a lane, and of other women watching little flocks of sheep in the fallow, weedy fields. The response was always the same. The battle and the place where it occurred seemed to have been effaced from French maps and from French memory.
I gave it up and turned back toward Poitiers. Then I met three men walking in company and ventured my question once more. They put their heads together, and discussed and disputed, and at length one of them affirmed in a vague sort of way that the battle was fought on the plains two miles distant. Hope rose and off I posted for the plains. My way thither took me through a curious little village in a ravine. It had a single street, and the houses on one side of the highway backed up against a high cliff much excavated into apartments that served as sheds and stables. I did not know just how to get out of this village and had to ask; and the man I accosted, instead of answering, wanted to know if I was a Spaniard. He recognized me as a foreigner, but was not clear as to the nationality.
“No,” I said; “I am an American.”
“Oh ho, you are, are you!” he exclaimed and he was angry and violent at once. He accused me of stealing the Philippines and made various remarks, sarcastic and derogatory. I belonged to a nation of rascals and did not deserve to be told the way. Still, he finally grudgingly vouchsafed to put me right, and I soon was on the plains where the old battle was fought.
Yet even then I had gone astray, though I was not at first aware of the fact, and the peaceful landscape was beginning to be converted in my mind’s eye into a scene of wild conflict when a member of the gentry happened along who, I believe, really knew something about local history. He said I was on a battle-field, but it was not the one I wanted. Here the French defeated the Huns way back at the beginning of the Christian era, but the battle with the English was fought on the other side of the valley, miles away. The fighting ground, however, was in both cases much the same, for on that side of the valley, as on this, were wide, almost treeless, upland plains, at this time of year golden with a thousand grain-fields in which the reapers were busy with their scythes and sickles.
This old French-English battle was one of the most striking instances in history of a small force winning against overwhelming odds, and you cannot but admire the victor’s valor, no matter how much you deprecate the pity that they did not fight in a better cause. The little army of eight thousand English was in truth more a party of freebooters than anything else. They had been wandering through the country after plunder, and they had carried off everything they could lay their hands on. By their cruelty and ruthlessness they had earned the honest hatred of every native on their line of march, and when they were cornered near Poitiers by sixty thousand French and compelled to fight, disaster was richly deserved. But in their cool, dogged, English way they prepared for battle, and in the strife and carnage which followed they themselves suffered scarcely any loss, while their assailants not only were put to flight, but left eleven thousand dead on the field.
I would have liked to walk over the very ground where the old battle was fought, but the place had proved too elusive, and it was now high noon, very dusty and very hot. I had had enough of tramping, especially after riding all the previous night, and I returned to Poitiers and the railway station.
I did not attempt to explore the city. Its attractions to the sightseer are not accounted very great, and the only thing which could have led me to further touring that day would have been the chance of finding some spot closely connected with the life of St. Hilaire, who died Bishop of Poitiers, in the year 368. Few, if any, of the early Christian saints had a career more picturesque in its abstemious simplicity. St. Hilaire belonged to one of the noble pagan families of Romanized Gaul, but was early converted, and at the age of fifteen we find him retiring into the wilderness to meditate and pray. There the devil visited him with manifold temptations, and when Satan finally saw that his wiles were of no avail and was about to depart, he vented his disappointment by jumping on St. Hilaire’s back and mocking him.
REAPING BY HAND
St. Hilaire presently came out of the wilderness, but his life continued to be one of extreme humility and self-denial. He cut his hair only once a year, he slept on a bed of rushes laid on the bare ground, and he never washed or changed his garments until they fell to pieces. During his early manhood, he restricted his daily diet to cold water and a pint of lentils, but he at length concluded he was pampering himself unduly, and substituted dry bread for the lentils, and instead of water that was simply cold he used that which was not only cold but muddy. At the age of twenty-six he made still another change, and for three years subsisted on wild herbs and raw roots. For five years after that his food for each day was six ounces of barley bread and a half-boiled turnip. This diet proved a little too slender for a man in his prime. He found that his eyesight was failing, while his body was afflicted with weakness and scrofula. So he added olives to his bill of fare, and the menu thus made up he did not vary until his sixty-third year, never tasting anything besides. Then he thought his body was worn out and death so near it would be just as well to discontinue the bread and the turnip. Yet his end was farther off than he imagined, for he lived twenty years longer, his daily rations a broth of flour and bruised olives, that made in all hardly five ounces of food and drink. Even then he fasted from sunrise to sunset, never varying this custom whether well or sick; and after all, “such was his fervor of mind that he seemed as if fresh come to the service of God at an advanced age when other men drop off.”
It is one of the most astonishing records we have of the power of the mind over the body; but, though I honor St. Hilaire’s ardent spirit and unfailing piety, I would not like to copy him exactly. It seems to me I should at least want to keep on with the bread and the turnip, after I had got used to them.