- CHAPTER XXIX The Fairy Prince's Ring
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The Fairy Prince's Ring
"Rub the ring, and the Genius will appear."—Arabian Nights.
DOWN, down a winding and beautiful road we plunged, on leaving the Grande Chartreuse, while the afternoon sunlight was still golden. The monastery sank out of our sight as we went, as the moon sinks into the sea, and was gone for us as if it were on the other side of the world. Ah, but a sweet, warm world, and I was glad after all that I was not a monk in carved oak cells and walled gardens, but a free young man who could vibrate between the South Pole and the Albany.
Molly said that the monastery of the Grande Chartreuse was like a body without a soul; and in another breath she was asking Jack, quite seriously, whether she could buy one of the cells from the French Government, all complete, to "express" as a present to her father in New York.
We flew, our motor humming like a bee, through exquisite forests clothing the sides of a narrow ravine, where hidden streams made music. Then in a twinkling we slipped out from the secret recesses of scented woods, into a village almost too beautiful to accept as reality, in a practical mood. There it lay, like a little heap of pearls tossed down from the lap of one mountain at the feet of another--and we were at St. Pierre de Chartreuse.| | 344
The tiny gem of beauty had caught the glory of Switzerland, and the soft, fairy charm of Dauphiné. Its guardian mountain was a miniature Matterhorn of indescribable grace and airy stateliness; its lesser attendants formed a group of peaks, grey and green and rose. As if enough gifts had not yet been bestowed upon the little place at its christening, a playground of forest land, rolling up over grassy slopes, had been given, with a neighbouring river, swift and clear, to sing it a lullaby.
I had the impulse to clap my hands at St. Pierre de Chartreuse, as at some "setting" excellently designed and carried out by the most celebrated of scene painters. It was a place in which to stop a month, finding a new walk for each new day; but one does not discover walks in a motor car. One sweeps over the country, sounding notes of triumph. We glanced at St. Pierre de Chartreuse and sped on towards Grenoble, through a landscape markedly different from that of Savoie.
In Savoie everything is done lavishly, on a large scale. The eye roams over spaces of noble amplitude, expressing strength in repose.
Dauphiné is livelier and daintier; more lovable, too. Fairies or brownies (since no mortals do it) keep the whole country like a vast private park. In crossing from Savoie into Dauphiné one seemed to hear the allegro movement after listening to the andante.
With each twist of our road the prospect changed. The mountains grew, soared more abruptly, and the youthful-looking landscape smiled at their strange shapes. As for the Cham Chaude, which had been the Matterhorn at St. Pierre de Chartreuse, it now disguised itself for some new part at every turn. | | 345 Such lightning changes must have been fatiguing, even for so extraordinarily versatile and clever a mountain, for within fifteen minutes after playing it was the Matterhorn, it was a giant, tonsured monk; a Greek soldier in a helmet; a Dutch cheese; a hen, and a camel.
When Dragon Mercédès had rushed us up the great Col, and whirled round a corner, suddenly a battalion of magnificent white warrior-mountains sprang at us from an ambush of invisibility. Then, no sooner had they struck awe to our hearts with their warlike majesty, than, repentant, they turned into lovely white ladies, bidding us welcome to the rich, ripe figs and purple grapes which they held in their generous laps. I thought of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary with her fair face, her candid sky-blue eyes, her high, noble bearing, and her white dress caught up, heaped with the roses into which her loaves had been transformed. The tallest, purest white mountain of all I chose for sweet Elizabeth, and that was none other than far Mont Blanc, floating magically in pure blue ether, like a gleaming pearl.
Flying down the perfect road towards the plain where two rivers met, loved, and wedded, the valley which was the white mountain's lap blended vague, soft greens and blues and purples, hinting of grapes and figs clustering under leaves. Here and there a vine had been nipped by early frosts and flung its crimson wreaths, like diadems of rubies, in a red arch across distant billows of mountain snows.
Autumn was in the air, and though the grass and most of the trees kept all their richness of summer greenery, a faint, pungent fragrance of dying leaves and the smoke of bonfires came to one's nostrils with | | 346 the breeze. Mingled with the exciting scent of petrol, it was delicious.
At the confluence of the newly married Drac and Isère rose the domes and towers of stately old Grenoble, hoary with history; and never a town had a nobler setting. Swooping down in half-circles, as if our car had been a great bird of prey, we saw the valley veiled with a silver haze, which wrapped the city in mystery, while through this gleaming gauze the two rivers threaded like strings of turquoise beads.
"How the Boy would have loved this!" I found myself exclaiming over my shoulder to Molly. "He used often to talk of the great charm of descending from heights upon places, especially new-old places, which one has never seen before."
"Used he?" echoed Molly. "Why, that is rather odd. It is exactly what Mercédès has just been saying."
The Perpetual Mushroom moved impatiently. I fancied by the movement of her shoulder that she resented having her thoughts passed on to me. I hastened to turn away, sorry that I had reminded her inadvertently of my cumbersome existence; but I could not help wondering what she had been thinking of in the monastery when we had walked for full five moments side by side.
There was no disappointment when we had plunged into the silver haze, torn it apart, and entered the town over a dignified bridge. All around us spread the city old and new; above, on the hills, were numerous châteaux, a strange fort, and the queerest of ancient convents, like the cork castles I had seen in shop windows and coveted as a child. In the town there were statues, many statues-- | | 347 statues everywhere and in honour of everybody. Bayard was there, dying; and there was a delightfully human old fellow (humorous even in marble) who cleverly "lay low" till his worst enemy had finished an elaborately fortified castle, then promptly took it. Not a spacious modern street that had not at least one magnificent old palace, a façade of joyous Renaissance invention, or at least a crumbling mediæval doorway of divine beauty; and nothing of romance was lost because Grenoble makes gloves for all the world.
We sailed out of the town along the straight five-mile road to the Pont de Claix, and now it was ho! for the Basses Alpes, over a road which might have been engineered for an emperor's motoring; past the quaint twin bridges spanning the stream, side by side, which our guide-book taught us to recognise as one of the Seven Wonders (with capitals) of Dauphiné. Then came a valley, almost theatrical in its romantic grace. One would not have believed in it for a moment if one had seen it first in a sketch. Even the railway, on which we soon looked down, was inspired to gymnastic feats, leaping across chasms on giddy viaducts, and twisting back upon itself in corkscrew tunnels. There were thrilling retrospective views away to the giant Alps we were leaving behind, but soon, nearer mountains crowded them out of sight. The country grew wild, with a strange grimness, like the face of a blind Fate; cultivation ceased in despair of success; and alike on the bare uplands and in the deep-scored valleys there were few signs of human life. Then, suddenly, in such a a setting, we came upon the grandest of the Seven Marvels, the most wonderful lone rock in Europe, Mont Aiguille, more like an obelisk of incalcu- | | 348 lable immensity than a mountain. Once, it had been considered unscalable, and might have remained virgin until this century of hardy climbers, had not Charles the Eighth had a fancy to hear (not to see!) what was on top. Up went a few of his bravest satellites, hoisting themselves on to the aërial plateau by means of ropes and ladders, and bringing down wondrous tales of impossible chamois, savage, brilliant-coloured birds, and singular vegetation, which stories promptly went into all the geographies of the day and were believed until a more practical explorer named Jean Liotard climbed up, to please himself, in 1834.
We lost sight of this second Dauphiné Marvel (the last one we were to see) just before running up the steep hill which led down again into the dark jaws of another mountain pass. It was the Col de la Croix Haute; and once past this gateway of the Alps the landscape changed slowly and indefinably, here and there suggesting that we were drawing nearer to the south. Though we were still encompassed on every side by mountains, they had lost their Alpine splendour of bearing; they stooped, or poked their chins.
The country was now all brown and green; and, surfeited with beauty, it seemed to me that here was nothing great. We sped through Aspres; through Serres, on its rocky promontory; and on through Laragne; whose ancient inn with the sign of a spider gave a name to the town. Pointed brown-green mountains were crowned with pointed green-brown ruins, hoary after much history-making; and at the pointed mountains' brown-green feet those avant-courriers of the South, almond trees, had sat down to rest on their way home.| | 349
Still we flew on; but at Sisteron Jack slowed down the motor. Here was something too curious for even spoiled sightseers to pass in a hurry.
The town struggled hardily up one side of a gorge, deep and steep, where the Durance has forced its patient way through a huge barrier of rock whose tilted strata correspond curiously on both sides of the stream. Driving down to the low bridge across the river, we gazed up at the town piled high above our heads, culminating in a fortress which, cut in a dark square out of the sky's turquoise, looked old as the beginning of the world.
Sisteron was brown, too, but not at all green; and beyond, for a time, the country was still in a grim brown study, though it ought to have remembered that it was now laughing Provence. It gave us crumbling châteaux, high-perched ancient rock villages without stint, and even a house (in the strangely named village of Malijai) where Napoleon had lain, early in the Hundred Days; but not a smile or a wild flower. Then, in a flash, its mood changed. The savage land had been tamed by some whispered word of Mother Nature, and grew youthfully pretty under our eyes. The poplars, in their autumn cloaks of gold, fringed the road with flame, and scattered largesse of red copper filings in our path; the dark mountains drew up over their bare shoulders scarfs of crimson, and the sun flung a million diamonds into the wide bed of the Durance.
Night was falling as we drove into the lazy-looking Provençal town of Digne; where all was green and sleepy, at peace with itself and the world at large. Even the beautiful Doric château d'eau was green with moss, and the water of its fountain | | 350 laughed in sleep; the famous basilica showed grey through green lichen; its wonderful rose window had a green frame of ivy, and the strange, sculptured beasts guarding the door had saddles of green velvet mould.
We slept at Digne, and made an early morning start, the car plunging us almost from the first into scenery which only Gustave Doré could have imagined. Gnome villages and elfin castles clung to slim pinnacles of rock which seemed to swing, like blown branches, against the sky. Wild grey mountains bristled with rocky spines, and trails of scarlet foliage poured like streams of blood down their rough sides, completing the resemblance to fierce, wounded boars.
Our road was a road of steep gradients, leading us through gorges of a grandeur which would have been called appalling when the world was a little younger, and more in awe of savage Nature. If a midge could be provided with a proportionately tiny motor car, and sent coasting at full tilt down a greased corkscrew, from the handle to the sharp end of the screw, the effect would have been somewhat that of our Mercédès leaping down the steep defiles. We were vaguely conscious now and than that a river far below us clamoured for our bones; on one side we had a precipice, on the other a sheer face of towering cliff.
Gorges, glorious gorges! a plethora of gorges. No sooner were we out of one, and drawing breath in a valley of golden sunshine and silver river, but we were back in another majestic cañon. Finest of all, perhaps, was the dark Clou de Rouaine; yet when we sprang out into daylight to throw ourselves into the village of Les Scaffarels, wonders did | | 351 not cease. Now we were in the true hinterland of the gay, blue-and-gold Riviera, following the course of the Var, down to Nice, not many miles away. Wide and pebbly in its bed by the bright pleasure town, here it led us through a succession of more gorges, thundered us through rock tunnels, swept us over bridges, and at last tumbled us into sight of a marvel which must throw the whole seven of Dauphiné out of focus. It was the town of Entrevaux, and to my shame I had never heard of it. Where the narrow valley opens into a broad one, and the green, swift flowing river sweeps in a sickle-curve round the base of a high rock, Entrevaux shoots far up into the sky. The river bathes its dark walls, protected by devices dear to the hearts of mediæval Vaubans. Pepper-castor sentry-boxes jut out over the water; a great drawbridge with portcullis, triple gateway, and near contrivances for pouring oil and molten lead upon besiegers, alone gives access to the town; while behind the old crowded houses a fortified stairway in the rock leads dizzily up to a stronghold clamped upon a towering peak--a peak like a black, giant wine-bottle, slender-necked, with the fort castle for the cork.
"If the Boy could see this with me!" I thought. And then, because this place was like a fairy place, I remembered the fairy prince's ring. Never had I followed his instructions; but I rubbed it now, and wished that the genie of the ring would give me back the Little Pal at Monte Carlo.
After Entrevaux, picturesque Puget-Theniers was an anticlimax; though other fairy towns peered down from high crags and sheer hillsides where they hung by wires caught in spider webs--and though we passed through other gorges of grim | | 352 beauty, my thoughts had flown ahead of our swift car. I was glad when at last we came into sight of a fair white city lying on the blue curve of a bay and ringed with green hills, glad that our journey was all but ended; for the fair city was Nice.
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