Tour Upon Wheels in 1886 (chapter II)

Chapter II

The road to Gisors crosses the highroad between Paris and Havre at Les Thilliers, where a hospitable inn gives us an excellent luncheon. We meet two English boys resident in France, who have run down on their bicycles to Dieppe for a day’s holiday and are hastening back to Paris. They learn with dismay that the direct road is paved and that they must make a detour by Vetnon and Mantes. They will scarcely reach Paris that evening, as they intended. Our route runs first to Dangu, once the home of Gladiateur the Derby winner. Comte Lagrange is gone, the chateau is sold and the glory of the training stables is dimmed. As we stop on a hill to look back upon the English-looking house of the sporting Frenchman, we see the towers of Gisors in front of us. Who has not heard of the prisoner of Gisors? Who has not seen his portrait, as published under the auspices of the English Art Union? We all know him as he sits carving a large crucifix on the walls of his prison with one of the links of the chain which binds him. The rock is hard, the light is scanty and the work appears prodigious. The reality was apparently not so bad. The Chevalier Poulain covered three parts of his circular chamber with a number of subjects partly sacred and partly secular, interesting from their variety and naivete, and form the light they throw on the customs of the times. But the rock is soft and yields easily to a sharp nail, and the light from the loopholes was sufficient for his purpose. Little is known of him except his name, which he has carved himself, and he was perhaps only imprisoned for a few months. In the matter of pathos and romance the prisoner of the Art Union has the best of it, but there are other reasons for going to Gisors. The castle fortress is enormous in extent: the round keep and the large space enclosed remind us of Windsor. It was built by Robert of Bellesme for William Rufus as a portion of the systematic defence of Normandy. The view from the highest turret is extremely beautiful, as it sweeps over hill and forest, and follows the course of the Epte to the Abbey of St. Clair, where the treaty was signed which gave Normandy to the Normans. The castle of Gisors, once seen, will never be forgotten. Like the castle and church of Little Andelys, it has a special voice for Englishmen. The church at Gisors is well worth a visit. It is a curious mixture of Gothic and Renaissance architecture. The towers are very late, but the north door is a masterpiece of delicate tracery and lace-like carving. It opens directly upon a narrow lane through which all married couples pass on their way from church, and which bears their name. Gisors is evidently a well-to-do country town, the centre of a neighbourhood of rich squires devoted to field-sports. The shops are bright and well stocked, and the arqucbusiers have made ample preparation for the opening day of sport on August 30. A good road takes us from Gisors to Beauvais. A few miles out we pass Trye-chateau, a village with a beautiful Romanesque church and town-hall and a country house in which the Prince of Conti gave an asylum to Rousseau. After leaving this we see few signs of habitation. The road rises perceptibly but in gradual slopes. We are constantly obliged to dismount and leave our machines up the hills In less dry weather it would not be difficult to ride up the hills without leaving our saddles, but the roads art covered with sand which impedes our progress as much as mud. At last the welcome plateau of Les Houssoirs is reached, a miserable street of dirty houses. We seek refreshment in a cabaret, and are terribly cheated: we pay less than is asked, and that is twice too much. But our labours are over: a good road and an easy descent leads us to Beauvais. Beauvais lies in a valley, and we see nothing of it until we are close upon it. The cathedral from a distance looks like a huge barn, and the suburbs are as squalid as those of an English manufacturing town. Beauvais must be known to be appreciated, but when known it produces a profound effect. The design of the cathedral is perhaps the most hazardous which was ever conceived by an artist’s mind. It consists of nothing but a choir and transepts; but the height of the choir is stupendous—a fairy erection of shafts, mullions, and windows, soaring far into the sky. This aerial palace is supported by a forest of flying buttresses, which appear to cross and interlace from each different point of view. The choir has the effect of a crystal casket let down from heaven by angelic hands, and anchored to earth by the slenderest ties. The architect soon found that his projected interior arches were not sufficient to support his build1ng, and he was forced to double their number. The multiplicity of columns which result from this change does not diminish the effect of the interior. The doors at the end of each transept are rich with elaborate tracery, but their statues and sculptures were destroyed at the Revolution. The windows of the nave contain the figures of prophets and kings sketched out in bold masses of colour, for no delicate work could have been appreciated from below. For three hundred years the piety of Beauvais toiled at the completion of this monument. There was money enough to build the nave, but the architect employed desired to immortalise himself by a colossal spire, open in the inside from base to summit, so lofty that the towers of Paris could be seen from its topmost gallery. The tower was built, but lasted only five years. Unsupported on the west side by any of the nave, it fell with a crash, after five years of existence, on Ascension Day 1573, at the moment when the customary procession was leaving the cathedral to make its circuit round the town. The cathedral will remain a torso, for no future generation will dare to touch it. In the eyes of the neighbourhood the chief wonder of Beauvais is not the cathedral, but the astronomical clock made by M. Verite, a distinguished native of the town, still living. The mechanical part of the clock is admirable. It tells everything which any one can wish to know—the month, the day, the hour; the saints days and the movable feasts; the time at every important place in the civilised globe; the golden number, the epact, the indiction, the dominical letter, and many other similar mysteries; the stars visible both at Beauvais and at its antipodes; the hours of high and low water at Mont St Michael and Jersey. But what most people come to see is a dramatic representation of the last judgment. At noon, the little chamber which holds the clock is crowded with expectant folk. Shortly after the hour has struck, a figure of Christ at the summit of the clock gives his benediction; the’ twelve apostles who stand around turn towards the central figure; the forms of various kings approach at open niches, disappear, and give place to flames. Then a statuette of Virtue is seen below the Redeemer. She is conducted to the place of blessing by an angel, to the sound of solemn music. A hideous resemblance of Vice is slowly driven to the other side by a devil of most revolting aspect. St Joseph and the Virgin intercede in vain. The balance held by the archangel Michael falls remorselessly on the wrong side. There ought to have been thunder, but we did not hear it. Justice having been satisfied, the flames disappear, and all the figures resume their previous position. There is a cock which crows with a ghastly croak, less lifelike than the bird of Strasbourg. This play of marionettes is, in the eyes of the Beauvaisins, worth all the science in the world. We suspect that it could not have been so to its author.

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