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Over Strand and Field(Chapter11)

2006-08-28 23:30

  Chapter XI. Mont Saint-Michel.

  The road from Pontorson to the Mont Saint-Michel is wearying on account of the sand. Our post-chaise (for we also travel by post-chaise), was disturbed every now and then by a number of carts filled with the grey soil which is found in these parts and which is transported to some place and utilised as manure. They became more numerous as we approached the sea, and defiled for several miles until we finally saw the deserted strand whence they came. On this white surface, with its conical heaps of earth resembling huts, the fluctuating line of carts reminded us of an emigration of barbarians deserting their native heath.

  The empty horizon stretches out, spreads, and finally mingles its greyish flats with the yellow sand of the beach. The ground becomes firmer and a salt breeze fans your cheeks; it looks like a vast desert from which the waters have receded. Long, flat strips of sand, superposed indefinitely in indistinct planes, ripple like shadows, and the wind playfully designs huge arabesques on their surfaces. The sea lies far away, so far, in fact, that its roar cannot be heard, though we could distinguish a sort of vague, aerial, imperceptible murmur, like the voice of the solitude, which perhaps was only the effect produced by the intense silence.

  Opposite us rose a large round rock with embattled walls and a church on its top; enormous counterparts resting on a steep slope support the sides of the edifice. Rocks and wild shrubs are strewn over the incline. Half-way up the slope are a few houses, which show above the white line of the wall and are dominated by the brown church; thus some bright colours are interspersed between the two plain tints.

  The post-chaise drove ahead of us and we followed it, guiding ourselves by the tracks of the wheels; finally it disappeared in the distance, and we could distinguish only its hood, which looked like some big crab crawling over the sand.

  Here and there a swift current of water compelled us to move farther up the beach. Or we would suddenly come upon pools of slime with ragged edges framed in sand.

  Beside us walked two priests who were also going to the Mont Saint-Michel. As they were afraid of soiling their new cassocks, they gathered them up around their legs when they jumped over the little streams. Their silver buckles were grey with mud, and their wet shoes gaped and threw water at every step they took.

  Meantime the Mount was growing larger. With one sweep of the eye we were able to take in the whole panorama, and could see distinctly the tiles on the roofs, the bunches of nettles on the rocks, and, a little higher, the green shutters of a small window that looks out into the governor's garden.

  The first door, which is narrow and pointed, opens on a sort of pebble road leading to the ocean; on the worn shield over the second door, undulating lines carved in the stone seem to represent water; on both sides of the doors are enormous cannons composed of iron bars connected by similar circular bands. One of them has retained a cannon-ball in its mouth; they were taken from the English in 1423, by Louis d'Estouteville, and have remained here four hundred years.

  Five or six houses built opposite one another compose the street; then the line breaks, and they continue down the slopes and stairs leading to the castle, in a sort of haphazard fashion.

  In order to reach the castle, you first go up to the curtain, the wall of which shuts out the view of the ocean from the houses below. Grass grows between the cracked stones and the battlements. The rampart continues around the whole island and is elevated by successive platforms. When you have passed the watch-house, which is situated between the two towers, you see a little straight flight of steps; when you climb them, the roofs of the houses, with their dilapidated chimneys, gradually grow lower and lower. You can see the washing hung out to dry on poles fastened to the garret-windows, or a tiny garden baking in the sun between the roof of one house and the ground-floor of another, with its parched leeks drooping their leaves over the grey soil; but the other side of the rock, the side that faces the ocean, is barren and deserted, and so steep that the shrubs that grow there have a hard time to remain where they are and look as if they were about to topple over every minute.

  When you are standing up there, enjoying as much space as the human eye can possibly encompass and looking at the ocean and the horizon of the coast, which forms an immense bluish curve, or at the wall of La Merveille with its thirty-six huge counterparts upreared on a perpendicular cliff, a laugh of admiration parts your lips, and you suddenly hear the sharp noise of the weaving-looms. The people manufacture linen, and the shrill sound of the shuttles produces a very lively racket.

  Between two slender towers, which represent the uplifted barrels of two cannons, is the entrance to the castle, a long, arched hallway, at the end of which is a flight of stone steps. The middle of the hall is always dark, being insufficiently lighted by two skylights one of which is at the bottom of the hall and the other at the top, between the interval of the drawbridge; it is like a subterranean vault.

  The guard-room is at the head of the stairs as you enter. The voice of the sergeants and the clicking of the guns re-echoed along the walls. They were beating a drum.

  Meanwhile a garde-chiourme returned with our passports, which M. le gouverneur had wished to see; then he motioned us to follow him; he opened doors, drew bolts, and led us through a maze of halls, vaults and staircases. Really, one can lose oneself in this labyrinth, for a single visit does not enable you to understand the complicated plan of these combined buildings, where a fortress, a church, an abbey, a prison and a dungeon, are mingled, and where you can find every style of architecture, from the Romance of the eleventh century to the bewildering Gothic of the sixteenth. We could catch only a glimpse of the knights' hall, which has been converted into a loom-room and is for this reason barred to the public. We saw only four rows of columns supporting a ceiling ornamented with salient mouldings; they were decorated with clover leaves. The monastery is built over this hall, at an altitude of two hundred feet above the sea level. It is composed of a quadrangular gallery formed by a triple line of small granite, tufa, or stucco columns. Acanthus, thistles, ivy, and oak-leaves wind around their caps; between each mitred ogive is a cut-out rose; this gallery is the place where the prisoners take the air.

  The cap of the garde-chiourme now passes along these walls where, in olden times, passed the shaved heads of industrious friars; and the wooden shoes of the prisoners click on the slabs that used to be swept by the trailing robes of monks and trodden by their heavy leather sandals.

  The church has a Gothic choir and a Romance nave, and the two architectures seem to vie with each other in majesty and elegance. In the choir, the arches of the windows are pointed, and are as lofty as the aspirations of love; in the nave, the arcades open their semi-circles roundly, and columns as straight as the trunk of a palm-tree mount along the walls. They rest on square pedestals, are crowned with acanthus leaves, and continue in powerful mouldings that curve beneath the ceiling and help support it.

  It was noon. The bright daylight poured in through the open door and rippled over the dark sides of the building.

  The nave, which is separated from the choir by a green curtain, is filled with tables and benches, for it is used also as a dining-hall. When mass is celebrated, the curtain is drawn and the condemned men may be present at divine service without removing their elbows from the table. It is a novel idea.

  In order to enlarge the platform by twelve yards on the western side of the church, the latter itself has been curtailed; but as it was necessary to reconstruct some sort of entrance, one architect closed the nave by a facade in Greek style; then, perhaps, feeling remorseful, or desiring (a presumption which will be accepted more readily), to embellish his work still further, he afterwards added some columns "which imitate fairly well the architecture of the eleventh century," says the notice. Let us be silent and bow our heads. Each of the arts has its own particular leprosy, its mortal ignominy that eats its face away. Painting has the family group, music the ballad, literature the criticism, and architecture the architect.

  The prisoners were walking around the platform, one after another, silent, with folded arms, and in the beautiful order we had the opportunity to admire at Fontevrault. They were the patients of the hospital ward taking the air.

  Tottering along with the file was one who lifted his feet higher than the rest and clung to the coat of the man ahead of him. He was blind. Poor, miserable wretch! God prevents him from seeing and his fellow-men forbid him to speak!

  The following day, when the tide had again receded from the beach, we left the Mount under a broiling sun which heated the hood of the carriage and made the horses sweat. They only walked; the harness creaked and the wheels sank deep into the sand. At the end of the beach, when grass appeared again, I put my eye to the little window that is in the back of every carriage, and bade goodbye to Mont Saint-Michel.

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