CHAPTER XII. NANTUA AND THE CHURCH OF BRON.
It was evening when we reached the little railway-station of La Cluse, and exquisite indeed was the twilight drive to Nantua. The crimson glories of sunset were still flaming in the west, and reflected in the limpid lake, whilst a silvery crescent moon rose slowly above the dark purple mountains framing in the picture. A delicious scene this, and wonderfully contrasted to the sombre splendour of St. Claude, tenderest allegro after stateliest adagio maestoso, droppings of pearly rain after heavy thunder-claps. Nantua must be seen from above its interesting Romanesque old church to be appreciated. It lies at the end of a mountain gorge, black with pines from summit to base, the transparent fairy-like lake opening beyond, shut in with violet hills.
No less delightful is the walk to La Cluse alongside the lake, an umbrageous avenue, the shadows of which are grateful this hot June-like October day. Through a light screen of foliage you look across the blue waters upon bluer hills, and still bluer sky. Nantua, in spite of its smiling appearance, is inevitably doomed one day to destruction, Straight over against the town impends a huge mass of loosened rock, which, so authorities predict, must sooner or later slide down, crushing any thing with which it comes in contact. People point to the enemy with nonchalance, saying, "Yes, the rock will certainly fall at some time or other, and destroy a great part of the town, but not perhaps in our time." Be this as it may, the gigantic fragment of rock hanging so menacingly over Nantua, is a curious object of contemplation.
I fell into conversation with two nuns belonging to the Order of St. Charles, and I wish I could delineate the hideousness of their costumes, and the unmitigated ugliness of their general appearance. Their dress consisted of a plain black gown with round cape and close fitting hood, on each side of which projected black gauze flaps extended on wires, shading their withered, ill-favoured countenances, and making them look indeed more like female inquisitors, ogres, or Witches of Endor than human beings. I never saw human nature made so uninviting, and I could fancy the terror inspired by these awful figures, with their bat-like flaps, in the tender minds of the little children entrusted to their care. It was edifying to hear these holy women discourse upon the Paris Exhibition, which it is hardly necessary to say the clerical party throughout France was bound to consider a failure. Alike the highest and the lowest, bishop and parish priest, were determined in their own minds that the Exhibition, as a display of rehabilitated France under a Republican Government, should fail altogether, and come to some conspicuously bad end. The very reverse had happened, yet here were two women of age, experience, and some intelligence coolly talking of this terrible failure of the Exhibition, financially and otherwise, the bad effect upon trade generally, and so forth.
I take the railway from Bourg to La Cluse, a mile from the town, and a marvellous piece of railway engineering is this short journey, veritable Alpine ascent in a railway-carriage, scaling perpendicular mountain sides by means of the steam-engine! The train curls round the mountain as the Jura roads are made to do, high above an awful gorge, in the midst of which runs the River Ain, emerald-green irradiated by diamond-like flashes of cascade and torrent. When we have accomplished this aerial bit of travel - it is very like being up in a balloon - we suddenly lose alike mountain, river, and ravine, all the world of enchantment in which I had been living for weeks past, to find ourselves in the region of prose and common-place! In other words, we were in the wide, highly cultivated plain of La Bresse. At Bourg-en-Bresse I halted, as everyone else must do, in order to see its famous Church of Brou. The Church was built in consequence of a vow made by Margaret of Burgundy, that if her husband, Philibert the Second, Duke of Savoy, was healed from injuries received in the hunt, she would erect a church and found a monastery of the Order of St. Benoit. The Duke recovered, but his wife died before accomplishing her work, which was, however, carried out by her daughter-in-law, Margaret of Austria, wife of Philibert le Beau. She summoned for this purpose all the best artists of the time to Bourg, and the church begun in 1506 was finished in 1532, under the direction of Loys von Berghem.
This spirited and imperious Margaret of Austria, known as Margot la Flamande, played an important part in history, as readers of Michelet's eloquent seventh volume know. She adored her second husband, the handsome Philibert, and owed all her life a grudge against France, on account of having been, as a child, promised in marriage to Charles VIII., and afterwards supplanted for political reasons by the no less imperious Anne of Brittany. Aunt and first instructress of Charles V., King of Spain and Emperor of Germany, she is regarded by Michelet as the founder of the House of Austria, and one of the chief agents in humiliating France by means of the Treaty of Cambrai. Margaret of Austria, Anne of Brittany, Louise of Savoy, mother of Francis I., writes the historian, "cousant, filant, lisant, ces trois fatales Parques ont tissu les maux de l'Europe" (sewing, spinning, reading, these three fatal Parcae were the misfortune of Europe), and the student of French history will follow the career of all three with interest after the clue here given them. Margaret, bitter, vindictive, and designing, seems to have had one poetic thread in her life only, namely, her passion for her husband, whose beauty lives in marble before us.