Chapter 29 - Modern "Cadets de Gascogne"
 

After witnessing the performance given by the Comedie Francaise in the antique theatre at Orange, we determined - my companion and I - if ever another opportunity of the kind offered, to attend, be the material difficulties what they might.

The theatrical "stars" in their courses proved favorable to the accomplishment of this vow. Before the year ended it was whispered to us that the "Cadets de Gascogne" were planning a tram through the Cevennes Mountains and their native Languedoc - a sort of lay pilgrimage to famous historic and literary shrines, a voyage to be enlivened by much crowning of busts and reciting of verses in the open air, and incidentally, by the eating of Gascony dishes and the degustation of delicate local wines; the whole to culminate with a representation in the arena at Beziers of Dejanire, Louis Gallet's and Saint- Saens's latest work, under the personal supervision of those two masters.

A tempting programme, was it not, in these days of cockney tours and "Cook" couriers? At any rate, one that we, with plenty of time on our hands and a weakness for out-of-the-way corners and untrodden paths, found it impossible to resist.

Rostand, in Cyrano de Bergerac, has shown us the "Cadets" of Moliere's time, a fighting, rhyming, devil-may-care band, who wore their hearts on their sleeves and chips on their stalwart shoulders; much such a brotherhood, in short, as we love to imagine that Shakespeare, Kit Marlowe, Greene, and their intimates formed when they met at the "Ship" to celebrate a success or drink a health to the drama.

The men who compose the present society (which has now for many years borne a name only recently made famous by M. Rostand's genius) come delightfully near realizing the happy conditions of other days, and - less the fighting - form as joyous and picturesque a company as their historic elders. They are for the most part Southern-born youths, whose interests and ambitions centre around the stage, devotees at the altar of Melpomene, ardent lovers of letters and kindred arts, and proud of the debt that literary France owes to Gascony.

It is the pleasant custom of this coterie to meet on winter evenings in unfrequented cafes, transformed by them for the time into clubs, where they recite new-made verses, discuss books and plays, enunciate paradoxes that make the very waiters shudder, and, between their "bocks," plan vast revolutions in the world of literature.

As the pursuit of "letters" is, if anything, less lucrative in France than in other countries, the question of next day's dinner is also much discussed among these budding Molieres, who are often forced to learn early in their careers, when meals have been meagre, to satisfy themselves with rich rhymes and drink their fill of flowing verse.

From time to time older and more successful members of the corporation stray back into the circle, laying aside their laurel crowns and Olympian pose, in the society of the new- comers to Bohemia. These honorary members enjoy nothing more when occasion offers than to escape from the toils of greatness and join the "Cadets" in their summer journeys to and fro in France, trips which are made to combine the pleasures of an outing with the aims of a literary campaign. It was an invitation to join one of these tramps that tempted my friend and me away from Paris at the season when that city is at its best. Being unable, on account of other engagements, to start with the cohort from the capital, we made a dash for it and caught them up at Carcassonne during the fetes that the little Languedoc city was offering to its guests.

After having seen Aigues Mortes, it was difficult to believe that any other place in Europe could suggest more vividly the days of military feudalism. St. Louis's tiny city is, however, surpassed by Carcassonne!

Thanks to twenty years of studious restoration by Viollet le Duc, this antique jewel shines in its setting of slope and plain as perfect to-day (seen from the distance) as when the Crusaders started from its crenelated gates for the conquest of the Holy Sepulchre. The acropolis of Carcassonne is crowned with Gothic battlements, the golden polygon of whose walls, rising from Roman foundations and layers of ruddy Visigoth brick to the stately marvel of its fifty towers, forms a whole that few can view unmoved.

We found the Cadets lunching on the platform of the great western keep, while a historic pageant organized in their honor was winding through the steep mediaeval streets - a cavalcade of archers, men at arms, and many-colored troubadours, who, after effecting a triumphal entrance to the town over lowered drawbridges, mounted to unfurl their banner on our tower. As the gaudy standard unfolded on the evening air, Mounet-Sully's incomparable voice breathed the very soul of the "Burgraves" across the silent plain and down through the echoing corridors below. While we were still under the impression of the stirring lines, he changed his key and whispered:-

Le soir tombe. . . . L'Heure douce
Qui s'eloigne sans secousse,
Pose a peine sur la mousse
Ses pieds.
Un jour indecis persiste,
Et le crepuscule triste
Ouvre ses yeux d'amethyste
Mouilles.

Night came on ere the singing and reciting ended, a balmy Southern evening, lit by a thousand fires from tower and battlement and moat, the old walls glowing red against the violet sky.

Picture this scene to yourself, reader mine, and you will understand the enthusiasm of the artists and writers in our clan. It needed but little imagination then to reconstruct the past and fancy one's self back in the days when the "Trancavel" held this city against the world.

Sleep that night was filled with a strange phantasmagoria of crenelated chateaux and armored knights, until the bright Provencal sunlight and the call for a hurried departure dispelled such illusions. By noon we were far away from Carcassonne, mounting the rocky slopes of the Cevennes amid a wild and noble landscape; the towering cliffs of the "Causses," zebraed by zig-zag paths, lay below us, disclosing glimpses of fertile valley and vine-engarlanded plain.

One asks one's self in wonder why these enchanting regions are so unknown. En route our companions were like children fresh from school, taking haphazard meals at the local inns and clambering gayly into any conveyance that came to hand. As our way led us through the Cevennes country, another charm gradually stole over the senses.

"I imagine that Citheron must look like this," murmured Catulle Mendes, as we stood looking down from a sun-baked eminence, "with the Gulf of Corinth there where you see that gleam of water." As he spoke he began declaiming the passage from Sophocles's Oedipus the King descriptive if that classic scene.

Two thousand feet below lay Ispanhac in a verdant valley, the River Tarn gleaming amid the cultivated fields like a cimeter thrown on a Turkish carpet. Our descent was an avalanche of laughing, singing "Cadets," who rolled in the fresh-cut grass and chased each other through the ripening vineyards, shouting lines from tragedies to groups of open-mouthed farm-hands, and invading the tiny inns on the road with song and tumult. As we neared our goal its entire population, headed by the cure, came out to meet us and offer the hospitality of the town.

In the market-place, one of our number, inspired by the antique solemnity of the surroundings, burst into the noble lines of Hugo's Devant Dieu, before which the awestruck population uncovered and crossed themselves, imagining, doubtless, that it was a religious ceremony.

Another scene recurs vividly to my memory. We were at St. Enimie. I had opened my window to breathe the night air after the heat and dust of the day and watch the moonlight on the quaint bridge at my feet. Suddenly from out the shadows there rose (like sounds in a dream) the exquisite tone of Sylvain's voice, alternating with the baritone of d'Esparbes. They were seated at the water's edge, intoxicated by the beauty of the scene and apparently oblivious of all else.

The next day was passed on the Tarn, our ten little boats following each other single file on the narrow river, winding around the feet of mighty cliffs, or wandering out into sunny pasture lands where solitary peasants, interrupted in their labors, listened in astonishment to the chorus thundered from the passing boats, and waved us a welcome as we moved by.

Space is lacking to give more than a suggestion of those days, passed in every known conveyance from the antique diligence to the hissing trolley, in company with men who seemed to have left their cares and their years behind them in Paris.

Our last stop before arriving at Beziers was at La Case, where luncheon was served in the great hall of the chateau. Armand Sylvestre presided at the repast; his verses alternated with the singings of Emma Calve, who had come from her neighboring chateau to greet her old friends and compatriots, the "Cadets."

As the meal terminated, more than one among the guests, I imagine, felt his heart heavy with the idea that to-morrow would end this pleasant ramble and send him back to the realities of life and the drudgery of daily bread-winning.

The morning of the great day dawned cloudless and cool. A laughing, many-colored throng early invaded the arena, the women's gay toilets lending it some resemblance to a parterre of fantastic flowers. Before the bell sounded its three strokes that announced the representation, over ten thousand spectators had taken their places and were studying the gigantic stage and its four thousand yards of painted canvas. In the foreground a cluster of Greek palaces and temples surround a market-place; higher up and further back the city walls, manned by costumed sentinels, rise against mountains so happily painted that their outlines blend with nature's own handiwork in the distance, - a worthy setting for a stately drama and the valiant company of actors who have travelled from the capital for this solemnity.

Three hundred hidden musicians, divided into wind and chord orchestras, accompany a chorus of two hundred executants, and furnish the music for a ballet of seventy dancers.

As the third stroke dies away, the Muse, Mademoiselle Rabuteau, enters and declaims the salutation addressed by Louis Gallet to the City of Beziers. At its conclusion the tragedy begins.

This is not the place to describe or criticise at length so new an attempt at classic restoration. The author follows the admirable fable of antiquity with a directness and simplicity worthy of his Greek model. The story of Dejanira and Hercules is too familiar to be repeated here. The hero's infidelity and the passion of a neglected woman are related through five acts logically and forcibly, with the noble music of Saint- Saens as a background.

We watch the growing affection of the demi-god for the gentle Iole. We sympathize with jealous, desperate Dejanira when in a last attempt to gain back the love of Hercules she persuades the unsuspecting Iole to offer him a tunic steeped in Nessus's blood, which Dejanira has been told by Centaur will when warmed in the sun restore the wearer to her arms.

At the opening of the fifth act we witness the nuptial fetes. Religious dances and processions circle around the pyre laid for a marriage sacrifice. Dejanira, hidden in the throng, watches in an agony of hope for the miracle to be worked.

Hercules accepts the fatal garment from the hands of his bride and calls upon the sun-god to ignite the altars. The pyre flames, the heat warms the clinging tunic, which wraps Hercules in its folds of torture. Writhing in agony, he flings himself upon the burning pyramid, followed by Dejanira, who, in despair, sees too late that she has been but a tool in the hands of Nessus.

No feeble prose, no characters of black or white, can do justice to the closing scenes of this performance. The roar of the chorus, the thunder of the actors' voices, the impression of reality left on the breathless spectators by the open-air reality of the scene, the ardent sun, the rustling wind, the play of light and shade across the stage, the invocation of Hercules addressed to the real heavens, not to a painted firmament, combined an effect that few among that vast concourse will forget.

At the farewell banquet in the arena after the performance, Georges Leygues, the captain of the Cadets, in answer to a speech from the Prefect, replied: "You ask about our aims and purposes and speak in admiration of the enthusiasm aroused by the passage of our band!

"Our aims are to vivify the traditions and language of our native land, and the memory of a glorious ancestry, to foster the love of our little province at the same time as patriotism for the greater country. We are striving for a decentralization of art, for the elevation of the stage; but above all, we preach a gospel of gayety and healthy laughter, the science of remaining young at heart, would teach pluck and good humor in the weary struggle of existence, characteristics that have marked our countrymen through history! We have borrowed a motto from Lope de Vega (that Gascon of another race), and inscribe `Par la langua et par l'epee' upon our banner, that these purposes may be read by the world as it runs."