Students of the Way of Saint James should know how the last builder of the Valentré Bridge at Cahors tricked the Devil into helping him finish the work. Well, not finish quite, but finish to the satisfaction of the wealthy houses of Quercy and of the city of Cahors, who insisted that, after seventy years, the world’s most magnificent bridge, the Valentré, commissioned by the most magnificent of popes – John XXII, born Jacques Duèze, an actual son of Cahors – must be completed by the significant year of 1378 (1378 being 22 short of the next century, 22 being the number of that pope, and its first two digits constituting a Devil’s Number).
Just as now, mere engineering was subject to the dictates of deeper scholarship, such as the study of sacred or demonic numbers. There was no question of dragging out the completion of the Valentré beyond the seventieth year after its commissioning – 70 being no mean or unholy number, obviously. Yet the work was well behind.
One evening, the despairing builder, all alone after his masons and labourers had gone to their homes, climbed to the top of the mighty central tower of the Valentré and readied himself to jump down into the River Lot, which swirled below him in the dark. Yet the good Christian would not yield to his despair, but uttered a prayer to Saint Faith, whose sanctuary in far away Conques he had once piously visited.
Now, it is well known that the little martyr Faith is the mightiest of saints, but also the least predictable, given greatly to pranks and tantrums, as many girls of her age. So it was that she alerted the Devil that he was being cheated of a soul, since the builder would not yield to the sin of despair.
Perching on the rim of the tower, the Devil appeared to the builder and suggested he would be better off jumping, since there was no good to be had from the burgers of Quercy and the city of Cahors. Why, the very next morning would not those fat citizens – called Caorsins, after the city – be clamouring and threatening like beasts? And what awaited the builder after so many labours but scorn and bankruptcy?
Yet the builder, inspired by little Saint Faith, addressed the Devil:
“Monsieur, might I not continue in this life a little longer, so that the bridge is completed and the Caorsins are satisfied?”
“Hmm, I suppose…if you are in no mood to forfeit your soul right now by jumping into the Lot – which is very cold at this time of year – you may be damned by other and more commodious means. A few good years to enjoy the fruits of your work will be in order. That’s quite normal. We get that all the time. I must have your soul, of course!”
“Of course. I assumed no less. But I must make a condition…”
“Oh, go on, builder, make your condition. I’m used to that too.”
“The bridge must be finished this very evening, since I cannot abide one more day of nagging and tormenting by the Caorsins. And it must be finished to the last batch of mortar before the sun touches the cliffs of Mont Saint Cyr.”
“Easily done. Stand upon the bridge with your trowel, and I shall wing up to you with all the stones and buckets of water needed for the completion.”
The Devil toiled through the night and the bridge was all but completed, barring one last batch of mortar. When the Devil reached out for the bucket so he could swoop down to the river, the builder, in the darkness, handed him a sieve instead. The Devil came back with no water. Puzzled, he swooped again.
Now, the demon is nothing if not impatient. He swooped time and time again into the Lot, only to emerge on the bridge with an empty container. At last the day dawned, and some have suggested that little Saint Faith had conspired to make it an especially bright and cloudless morning, without a wisp of mist. Now the Devil saw that the container in his hand was a sieve, not a bucket. He looked frantically about for a bucket, but the builder, at that moment, pointed toward the cliffs of Mont Saint Cyr, which were sparkling in the newly risen sun.
“Monsieur, I must now thank you for your exertions, but, as you see, the sun is upon the Mont Saint Cyr and I want a load of mortar for the last stone. Let me assure you that men will remember what you have done here. But you will excuse me now. I must finish this last batch of mortar and fit this last stone, so that the Bishop and the Caorsins may proceed with inaugurating the Bridge of Valentré this very day.
“And then, since my soul is still my own, I must proceed along the Way of Saint James, to the sanctuary of Saint Faith, in far Conques, where I intend to donate half my bonus to the glory and increase of her cult.
“Before you go, I, er, don’t suppose you’d be willing to fill this last bucket for me…”
The Devil was furious but, being quite honest over bargains and wagers, since those things are his stock in trade, could only stamp and flap his bat-like wings in frustration.
It is said, however, that in his rage he displaced a stone from the central tower, making a kind of lair where he often goes to lurk. If the stone is replaced by day, it is dislodged by night.
So the story goes.
Sancta Fides, ora pro nobis.