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Title: A Motor-Flight Through France
Author: Wharton, Edith
Language: English
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Transcriber’s Note: Italicized text is enclosed in _underscores_.



  A MOTOR-FLIGHT
  THROUGH FRANCE

[Illustration: CHAUVIGNY: RUINS OF CASTLE]



  A MOTOR-FLIGHT
  THROUGH FRANCE

  BY
  EDITH WHARTON

  ILLUSTRATED

  [Illustration]

  NEW YORK
  CHARLES SCRIBNER’S SONS
  1908



  COPYRIGHT, 1908, BY
  CHARLES SCRIBNER’S SONS

  Published October, 1908

  [Illustration]



CONTENTS


  PART I

  CHAPTER                                                           PAGE
    I. BOULOGNE TO AMIENS                                              1

   II. BEAUVAIS AND ROUEN                                             15

  III. FROM ROUEN TO FONTAINEBLEAU                                    24

   IV. THE LOIRE AND THE INDRE                                        34

    V. NOHANT TO CLERMONT                                             48

   VI. IN AUVERGNE                                                    56

  VII. ROYAT TO BOURGES                                               66


  PART II

    I. PARIS TO POITIERS                                              73

   II. POITIERS TO THE PYRENEES                                       95

  III. THE PYRENEES TO PROVENCE                                      117

   IV. THE RHONE TO THE SEINE                                        143


  PART III

  A FLIGHT TO THE NORTH-EAST                                         172



ILLUSTRATIONS


  Chauvigny: Ruins of castle                                Frontispiece
                                                             Facing page
  Arras: Hôtel de Ville                                                2

  Amiens: West front of the Cathedral                                  6

  Amiens: Ambulatory of the Cathedral                                 10

  Beauvais: West front of the Cathedral                               14

  Rouen: Rue de l’Horloge                                             18

  Rouen: The façade of the Church of Saint-Maclou                     22

  Rouen: Monument of the Cardinals of Amboise in the Cathedral        26

  Le Petit Andely: View of the town and Château Gaillard              30

  Orléans: General view of the town                                   38

  Nohant: Château of George Sand                                      42

  Nohant: Garden pavilion                                             44

  Clermont-Ferrand: Notre-Dame du Port                                50

  Orcival: The church                                                 62

  Moulins: Place del’Hôtel-de-Ville and the Jacquemart tower          70

  Bourges: Apse of the Cathedral                                      74

  Château of Maintenon                                                76

  Neuvy Saint-Sépulcre: Church of the Precious Blood                  84

  Neuvy Saint-Sépulcre: Interior of the church                        88

  Poitiers: Baptistery of St. John                                    90

  Poitiers: The Church of Notre-Dame-la-Grande                        92

  Angoulême: Façade of the Cathedral                                  96

  Thiers: View of the town from the Pont de Seychalles                98

  Bordeaux: Church of The Holy Cross                                 100

  Bétharram: The bridge                                              106

  Argelès-Gazost: The old bridge                                     108

  Salies de Béarn: View of old town                                  110

  St. Bertrand-de-Comminges: Pier of the Four Evangelists in the
      Cloister                                                       116

  Albi: General view of the Cathedral                                118

  Albi: Interior of the Cathedral                                    120

  Nîmes: The Baths of Diana--public gardens                          122

  Carcassonne: The Porte de l’Aude                                   124

  Saint-Remy: The Mausoleum                                          126

  St. Maximin: Choir stalls in the church                            130

  Toulon: The House of Puget                                         134

  Orange: The Arch of Marius                                         136

  Grignan: Gate of the castle                                        138

  Valence: The Cathedral                                             142

  Vienne: General view of the town                                   146

  Brou: Tomb of Margaret of Austria in the church                    150

  Dijon: Mourners on the tomb of Jean Sans Peur                      154

  Avallon: General view of the town                                  158

  Vézelay: Narthex of the Church of the Madeleine                    160

  Sens: Apse of the Cathedral                                        168

  Noyon: Hôtel de Ville                                              186

  St. Quentin: Hôtel de Ville                                        188

  Laon: General view of the town and Cathedral                       192

  Soissons: Ruined church of Saint-Jean-des-Vignes                   196



A MOTOR-FLIGHT THROUGH FRANCE



PART I



I

BOULOGNE TO AMIENS


The motor-car has restored the romance of travel.

Freeing us from all the compulsions and contacts of the railway,
the bondage to fixed hours and the beaten track, the approach to
each town through the area of ugliness and desolation created by the
railway itself, it has given us back the wonder, the adventure and the
novelty which enlivened the way of our posting grand-parents. Above
all these recovered pleasures must be ranked the delight of taking a
town unawares, stealing on it by back ways and unchronicled paths, and
surprising in it some intimate aspect of past time, some silhouette
hidden for half a century or more by the ugly mask of railway
embankments and the iron bulk of a huge station. Then the villages that
we missed and yearned for from the windows of the train--the unseen
villages have been given back to us!--and nowhere could the importance
of the recovery have been more delightfully exemplified than on a May
afternoon in the Pas-de-Calais, as we climbed the long ascent beyond
Boulogne on the road to Arras.

It is a delightful country, broken into wide waves of hill and
valley, with hedge-rows high and leafy enough to bear comparison
with the Kentish hedges among which our motor had left us a day or
two before; and the villages, the frequent, smiling, happily-placed
villages, will also meet successfully the more serious challenge of
their English rivals--meet it on other grounds and in other ways, with
paved market-places and clipped _charmilles_ instead of gorse-fringed
commons, with soaring belfries instead of square church towers, with
less of verdure, but more, perhaps, of outline--certainly of line.

[Illustration: ARRAS: HÔTEL DE VILLE]

The country itself--so green, so full and close in texture, so
pleasantly diversified by clumps of woodland in the hollows, and
by streams threading the great fields with light--all this, too,
has the English, or perhaps the Flemish quality--for the border is
close by--with the added beauty of reach and amplitude, the deliberate
gradual flow of level spaces into distant slopes, till the land breaks
in a long blue crest against the seaward horizon.

There was much beauty of detail, also, in the smaller towns through
which we passed: some of them high-perched on ridges that raked the
open country, with old houses stumbling down at picturesque angles from
the central market-place; others tucked in the hollows, among orchards
and barns, with the pleasant country industries reaching almost to the
doors of their churches. In the little villages a deep delicious thatch
overhangs the plastered walls of cottages espaliered with pear-trees,
and ducks splash in ponds fringed with hawthorn and laburnum; and
in the towns there is almost always some note of character, of
distinction--the gateway of a seventeenth century _hôtel_, the triple
arch of a church-front, the spring of an old mossy apse, the stucco and
black cross-beams of an ancient guild-house--and always the straight
lime-walk, square-clipped or trained _en berceau_, with its sharp green
angles and sharp black shade acquiring a value positively architectural
against the high lights of the paved or gravelled _place_. Everything
about this rich juicy land bathed in blond light is characteristically
Flemish, even to the slow-moving eyes of the peasants, the bursting
red cheeks of the children, the drowsy grouping of the cattle in
flat pastures; and at Hesdin we felt the architectural nearness of
the Low Countries in the presence of a fine town-hall of the late
Renaissance, with the peculiar “movement” of volutes and sculptured
ornament--lime-stone against warm brick--that one associates with the
civic architecture of Belgium: a fuller, less sensitive line than the
French architect permits himself, with more massiveness and exuberance
of detail.

This part of France, with its wide expanse of agricultural landscape,
disciplined and cultivated to the last point of finish, shows how
nature may be utilized to the utmost clod without losing its freshness
and naturalness. In some regions of this supremely “administered”
country, where space is more restricted, or the fortunate accidents
of water and varying levels are lacking, the minute excessive culture,
the endless ranges of _potager_ wall, and the long lines of fruit-trees
bordering straight interminable roads, may produce in the American
traveller a reaction toward the unkempt, a momentary feeling that
ragged road-sides and weedy fields have their artistic value. But here
in northern France, where agriculture has mated with poetry instead
of banishing it, one understands the higher beauty of land developed,
humanised, brought into relation to life and history, as compared with
the raw material with which the greater part of our own hemisphere is
still clothed. In France everything speaks of long familiar intercourse
between the earth and its inhabitants; every field has a name, a
history, a distinct place of its own in the village polity; every
blade of grass is there by an old feudal right which has long since
dispossessed the worthless aboriginal weed.

As we neared Arras the road lost its pleasant windings and ran straight
across a great plateau, with an occasional long dip and ascent that
never deflected it from its purpose, and the villages became rarer,
as they always do on the high wind-swept plains of France. Arras,
however, was full of compensations for the dullness of the approach: a
charming old grey town, with a great air of faded seventeenth-century
opulence, in which one would have liked to linger, picking out details
of gateway and courtyard, of sculptured masks and wrought-iron
balconies--if only a brief peep into the hotel had not so promptly
quenched the impulse to spend a night there.

To Amiens therefore we passed on, passing again, toward sunset, into a
more broken country, with lights just beginning to gleam through the
windows of the charming duck-pond villages, and tall black crucifixes
rising ghostly at the cross-roads; and night was obliterating the
mighty silhouette of the cathedral as we came upon it at length by a
long descent.

[Illustration: AMIENS: WEST FRONT OF THE CATHEDRAL]

It is always a loss to arrive in a strange town after dark, and miss
those preliminary stages of acquaintance that are so much more likely
to be interesting in towns than in people; but the deprivation is
partly atoned for by the sense of adventure with which, next morning,
one casts one’s self upon the unknown. There is no conjectural first
impression to be modified, perhaps got rid of: one’s mind presents a
blank page for the town to write its name on.

At Amiens the autograph consists of one big word: the cathedral. Other,
fainter writing may come out when one has leisure to seek for it; but
the predominance of those mighty characters leaves, at first, no time
to read between the lines. And here it may be noted that, out of Italy,
it takes a town of exceptional strength of character to hold its own
against a cathedral. In England, the chapter-house and the varied
groupings of semi-ecclesiastical buildings constituting the close,
which seem to form a connecting link between town and cathedral, do no
more, in reality, than enlarge the skirts of the monument about which
they are clustered; and even at Winchester, which has its college and
hospital to oppose to the predominance of the central pile, there
is, after all, very little dispersal of interest: so prodigious,
so unparalleled, as mere feats of human will-power, are these vast
achievements of the Middle Ages. In northern France, where the great
cathedrals were of lay foundation, and consequently sprang up alone,
without the subordinate colony of monastic buildings of which the
close is a survival--and where, as far as monuments of any importance
are concerned, the architectural gap sometimes extends from Louis the
Saint to Louis the Fourteenth--the ascendancy of the diocesan church
is necessarily even more marked. Rouen alone, perhaps, opposes an
effectual defence to this concentration of interest, will not for a
moment let itself be elbowed out of the way by the great buttresses
of its cathedral; and at Bourges--but Bourges and Rouen come later in
this itinerary, and meanwhile here we are, standing, in a sharp shower,
under a _notaire’s_ doorway, and looking across the little square at
the west front of Amiens.

Well! No wonder such a monument has silenced all competitors. It would
take a mighty counter-blast to make itself heard against “the surge
and thunder” of that cloud of witnesses choiring forth the glories of
the Church Triumphant. Is the stage too crowded? Is there a certain
sameness in the overarching tiers of the stone hierarchy, each figure
set in precise alignment with its neighbours, each drapery drawn within
the same perpendicular bounds? Yes, perhaps--if one remembers Rheims
and Bourges; but if, setting aside such kindred associations, one
surrenders one’s self uncritically to the total impression produced, if
one lets the fortunate accidents of time and weather count for their
full value in that total--for Amiens remains mercifully unscrubbed, and
its armies of saints have taken on the richest _patina_, that northern
stone can acquire--if one views the thing, in short, partly as a symbol
and partly as a “work of nature” (which all ancient monuments by grace
of time become), then the front of Amiens is surely one of the most
splendid spectacles that Gothic art can show.

On the symbolic side especially it would be tempting to linger; so
strongly does the contemplation of the great cathedrals fortify
the conviction that their chief value, to this later age, is not
so much æsthetic as moral. The world will doubtless always divide
itself into two orders of mind: that which sees in past expressions
of faith, political, religious or intellectual, only the bonds cast
off by the spirit of man in its long invincible struggle for “more
light”; and that which, while moved by the spectacle of the struggle,
cherishes also every sign of those past limitations that were, after
all, each in its turn, symbols of the same effort toward a clearer
vision. To the former kind of mind the great Gothic cathedral will be
chiefly interesting as a work of art and a page of history; and it
is perhaps proof of the advantage of cultivating the other--the more
complex--point of view, in which enfranchisement of thought exists in
harmony with atavism of feeling, that it permits one to appreciate
these archæological values to the full, yet subordinates them to
the more impressive facts of which they are the immense and moving
expression. To such minds, the rousing of the sense of reverence is
the supreme gift of these mighty records of mediæval life: reverence
for the persistent, slow-moving, far-reaching forces that brought them
forth. A great Gothic cathedral sums up so much of history, it has cost
so much in faith and toil, in blood and folly and saintly abnegation,
it has sheltered such a long succession of lives, given collective
voice to so many inarticulate and contradictory cravings, seen so much
that was sublime and terrible, or foolish, pitiful and grotesque,
that it is like some mysteriously preserved ancestor of the human race,
some Wandering Jew grown sedentary and throned in stony contemplation,
before whom the fleeting generations come and go.

[Illustration: AMIENS: AMBULATORY OF THE CATHEDRAL]

Yes--reverence is the most precious emotion that such a building
inspires: reverence for the accumulated experiences of the past,
readiness to puzzle out their meaning, unwillingness to disturb rashly
results so powerfully willed, so laboriously arrived at--the desire,
in short, to keep intact as many links as possible between yesterday
and to-morrow, to lose, in the ardour of new experiment, the least that
may be of the long rich heritage of human experience. This, at any
rate, might seem to be the cathedral’s word to the traveller from a
land which has undertaken to get on without the past, or to regard it
only as a “feature” of æsthetic interest, a sight to which one travels
rather than a light by which one lives.

The west front of Amiens says this word with a quite peculiar
emphasis, its grand unity of structure and composition witnessing
as much to constancy of purpose as to persistence of effort. So
steadily, so clearly, was this great thing willed and foreseen, that
it holds the mind too deeply subject to its general conception to
be immediately free for the delighted investigation of detail. But
within the building detail reasserts itself: detail within detail,
worked out and multiplied with a prodigality of enrichment for which
a counterpart must be sought beyond the Alps. The interiors of the
great French cathedrals are as a rule somewhat gaunt and unfurnished,
baring their structural nakedness sublimely but rather monotonously to
eyes accustomed to the Italian churches “all glorious within.” Here
at Amiens, however, the inner decking of the shrine has been piously
continued from generation to generation, and a quite extraordinary
wealth of adornment bestowed on the choir and its ambulatory. The
great sculptured and painted frieze encircling the outer side of the
choir is especially surprising in a French church, so seldom were
the stone histories lavished on the exterior continued within the
building; and it is a farther surprise to find the same tales in
bas-relief animating and enriching the west walls of the transepts.
They are full of crowded expressive incidents, these stories of local
saints and Scriptural personages; with a Burgundian richness and
elaborateness of costume, and a quite charming, childish insistence
on irrelevant episode and detail--the reiterated “And so,” “And then”
of the fairy-tale calling off one’s attention into innumerable little
by-paths, down which the fancy of fifteenth-century worshippers
must have strayed, with oh! what blessedness of relief, from the
unintelligible rites before the altar.

Of composition there is none: it is necessarily sacrificed to the
desire to stop and tell everything; to show, for instance, in an
interesting parenthesis, exactly what Herod’s white woolly dog was
about while Salome was dancing away the Baptist’s head. And thus one is
brought back to the perpetually recurring fact that all northern art
is anecdotic, and has always been so; and that, for instance, all the
elaborate theories of dramatic construction worked out to explain why
Shakespeare crowded his stage with subordinate figures and unnecessary
incidents, and would certainly, in relating the story of Saint John,
have included Herod’s “Tray and Sweetheart” among the dramatis
personæ--that such theories are but an unprofitable evasion of the
ancient ethnological fact _that the Goth has always told his story in
that way_.

[Illustration: BEAUVAIS: WEST FRONT OF THE CATHEDRAL]



II

BEAUVAIS AND ROUEN


The same wonderful white road, flinging itself in great coils and
arrow-flights across the same spacious landscape, swept us on the
next day to Beauvais. If there seemed to be fewer memorable incidents
by the way--if the villages had less individual character, over and
above their general charm of northern thrift and cosiness--it was
perhaps because the first impression had lost its edge; but we caught
fine distant reaches of field and orchard and wooded hillside, giving
a general sense that it would be a good land to live in--till all
these minor sensations were swallowed up and lost in the overwhelming
impression of Beauvais.

The town itself--almost purposely, as we felt afterward--failed to put
itself forward, to arrest us by any of the minor arts which Arras,
for instance, had so seductively exerted. It maintained an attitude
of calm aloofness, of affected ignorance of the traveller’s object in
visiting it--suffering its little shuttered non-committal streets to
lead us up, tortuously, to the drowsiest little provincial _place_,
with the usual lime-arcades, and the usual low houses across the way;
where suddenly there soared before us the great mad broken dream
of Beauvais choir--the cathedral without a nave--the Kubla Khan of
architecture....

It seems in truth like some climax of mystic vision, miraculously
caught in visible form, and arrested, broken off, by the intrusion of
the Person from Porlock--in this case, no doubt, the panic-stricken
mason, crying out to the entranced creator: “We simply can’t keep
it up!” And because it literally couldn’t be kept up--as one or two
alarming collapses soon attested--it had to check there its great wave
of stone, hold itself for ever back from breaking into the long ridge
of the nave and flying crests of buttress, spire and finial. It is
easy for the critic to point out its structural defects, and to cite
them in illustration of the fact that your true artist never seeks to
wrest from their proper uses the materials in which he works--does
not, for instance, try to render metaphysical abstractions in stone
and glass and lead; yet Beauvais has at least none of the ungainliness
of failure: it is like a great hymn interrupted, not one in which the
voices have flagged; and to the desultory mind such attempts seem to
deserve a place among the fragmentary glories of great art. It is, at
any rate, an example of what the Gothic spirit, pushed to its logical
conclusion, strove for: the utterance of the unutterable; and he who
condemns Beauvais has tacitly condemned the whole theory of art from
which it issued. But shall we not have gained greatly in our enjoyment
of beauty, as well as in serenity of spirit, if, instead of saying
“this is good art,” or “this is bad art,” we say “this is classic” and
“that is Gothic”--this transcendental, that rational--using neither
term as an epithet of opprobrium or restriction, but content, when
we have performed the act of discrimination, to note what forms of
expression each tendency has worked out for itself?

Beyond Beauvais the landscape became more deeply Norman--more thatched
and green and orchard-smothered--though, as far as the noting of
detail went, we did not really get _beyond Beauvais_ at all, but
travelled on imprisoned in that tremendous memory till abruptly, from
the crest of a hill, we looked down a long green valley to Rouen
shining on its river--belfries, spires and great arched bridges
drenched with a golden sunset that seemed to shoot skyward from the
long illuminated reaches of the Seine. I recall only two such magic
descents on famous towns: that on Orvieto, from the last hill of the
Viterbo road, and the other-pitched in a minor key, but full of a small
ancient majesty--the view of Wells in its calm valley, as the Bath road
gains the summit of the Mendip hills.

[Illustration: ROUEN: RUE DE L’HORLOGE]

The poetry of the descent to Rouen is, unhappily, dispelled by the
long approach through sordid interminable outskirts. Orvieto and
Wells, being less prosperous, do not subject the traveller to this
descent into prose, which leaves one reflecting mournfully on the
incompatibility, under our present social system, between prosperity
and beauty. As for Rouen itself, as one passes down its crowded
tram-lined quays, between the noisy unloading of ships and the clatter
of innumerable cafés, one feels that the old Gothic town one used
to know cannot really exist any more, must have been elbowed out of
place by these spreading commercial activities; but it turns out to be
there, after all, holding almost intact, behind the dull mask of modern
streets, the surprise of its rich mediævalism.

Here indeed the traveller finds himself in no mere “cathedral town”;
with one street leading to Saint Ouen, another to Saint Maclou, a third
to the beautiful Palais de Justice, the cathedral itself has put forth
the appeal of all its accumulated treasures to make one take, first
of all, the turn to its doors. There are few completer impressions in
Europe than that to be received as one enters the Lady Chapel of Rouen,
where an almost Italian profusion of colour and ornament have been
suffered to accumulate slowly about its central ornament--the typically
northern monument of the two Cardinals of Amboise. There could hardly
be a better example of the æsthetic wisdom of “living and letting live”
than is manifested by the happy way in which supposedly incompatible
artistic ideals have contrived to make _bon ménage_ in this delicious
corner. It is a miracle that they have been allowed to pursue their
happy experiment till now, for there must have been moments when, to
the purist of the Renaissance, the Gothic tomb of the Cardinals seemed
unworthy to keep company with the Sénéchal de Brézé’s monument, in
which the delicate note of classicalism reveals a France so profoundly
modified by Italy; just as, later, the great Berniniesque altar-piece,
with its twisted columns and exuberance of golden rays, must have
narrowly escaped the axe of the Gothic reactionary. But there they
all are, blending their supposed discords in a more complex harmony,
filling the privileged little edifice with an overlapping richness
of hue and line through which the eye perpetually passes back to the
central splendour of the Cardinals’ tomb.

A magnificent monument it is, opposing to the sober beauty of Germain
Pilon’s composition its insolence of varied detail--the “this, and
this, and this” of the loquacious mediæval craftsman--all bound
together by the pew constructive sense which has already learned
how to bring the topmost bud of the marble finials into definite
relation with the little hooded mourners bowed in such diversity of
grief in their niches below the tomb. A magnificent monument--and
to my mind the finest thing about it is the Cardinal Uncle’s nose.
The whole man is fine in his sober dignity, humbly conscious of the
altar toward which he faces, arrogantly aware of the purple on his
shoulders; and the nose is the epitome of the man. We live in the day
of little noses: that once stately feature, intrinsically feudal and
aristocratic in character--the _maschio naso_ extolled of Dante--has
shrunk to democratic insignificance, like many another fine expression
of individualism. And so one must look to the old painters and
sculptors to see what a nose was meant to be--the prow of the face;
the evidence of its owner’s standing, of his relation to the world,
and his inheritance from the past. Even in the profile of the Cardinal
Nephew, kneeling a little way behind his uncle, the gallant feature is
seen to have suffered a slight diminution: its spring, still bold, is
less commanding; it seems, as it were, to have thrust itself against
a less yielding element. And so the deterioration has gone on from
generation to generation, till the nose has worn itself blunt against
the increasing resistances of a democratic atmosphere, and stunted,
atrophied and amorphous, serves only, now, to let us know when we have
the influenza.

With the revisiting of the Cardinal’s nose the first object of our
visit to Rouen had been accomplished; the second led us, past objects
of far greater importance, to the well-arranged but dull gallery where
Gerhard David’s “Virgin of the Grapes” is to be seen. Every wanderer
through the world has these pious pilgrimages to perform, generally to
shrines of no great note--how often, for instance, is one irresistibly
drawn back to the Transfiguration or to the Venus of Milo?--but to
lesser works, first seen, perhaps, at a fortunate moment, or having
some special quality of suggestion and evocation that the perfect
equilibrium of the masterpieces causes them to lack. So I know of
some who go first to “The Death of Procris” in the National Gallery;
to the little “Apollo and Marsyas” of the Salon Carré; to a fantastic
allegorical picture, subject and artist unknown, in an obscure corner
of the Uffizi; and who would travel more miles to see again, in the
little gallery of Rimini, an Entombment of the school of Mantegna, than
to sit beneath the vault of the Sistine.

[Illustration: ROUEN: THE FAÇADE OF THE CHURCH OF SAINT-MACLOU]

All of which may seem to imply an unintentional disparagement of
Gerhard David’s picture, which is, after all, a masterpiece of its
school; but the school is a subordinate one, and, save to the student
of Flemish art, his is not a loud-sounding name: one does not say, for
instance, with any hope of general recognition--“Ah, yes; that reminds
me of such and such a bit in ‘The Virgin of the Grapes.’”

All the more, therefore, may one enjoy his picture, in the empty
room of the Rouen gallery, with that gentle sense of superiority
and possessorship to which the discerner of obscure merit is surely
entitled. How much of its charm this particular painting owes to its
not having become the picnic-ground of the art-excursionist, how
much to its own intrinsic beauty, its grave serenities of hue and
gesture--how much, above all, to the heavenly translucence of that
bunch of grapes plucked from the vines of Paradise--it is part of its
very charm to leave unsettled, to keep among the mysteries whereby it
draws one back. Only one trembles lest it should cease to shine in its
own twilight heaven when it has become a star in Baedeker....



III

FROM ROUEN TO FONTAINEBLEAU


The Seine, two days later, by the sweetest curves, drew us on from
Rouen to Les Andelys, past such bright gardens terraced above its
banks, such moist poplar-fringed islands, such low green promontories
deflecting its silver flow, that we continually checked the flight of
the motor, pausing here, and here, and here again, to note how France
understands and enjoys and lives with her rivers.

With her great past, it seems, she has partly ceased to live; for,
ask as we would, we could not, that morning, learn the way to King
Richard’s Château Gaillard on the cliff above Les Andelys. Every turn
from the route de Paris seemed to lead straight into the unknown;
“_mais c’est tout droit pour_ Paris” was the invariable answer when we
asked our way. Yet a few miles off were two of the quaintest towns
of France--the Little and Great Andely--surmounted by a fortress
marking an epoch in military architecture, and associated with the
fortunes of one of the most romantic figures in history; and we
knew that if we clung to the windings of the Seine they must lead
us, within a few miles, to the place we sought. And so, having with
difficulty disentangled ourselves from the route de Paris, we pushed
on, by quiet by-roads and unknown villages, by _manoirs_ of grey stone
peeping through high thickets of lilac and laburnum, and along shady
river-reaches where fishermen dozed in their punts, and cattle in the
meadow-grass beneath the willows--till the soft slopes broke abruptly
into tall cliffs shaggy with gorse, and the easy flow of the river was
forced into a sharp twist at their base. There is something fantastic
in this sudden change of landscape near Les Andelys from the familiar
French river-scenery to what might be one of Piero della Francesca’s
backgrounds of strangely fretted rock and scant black vegetation; while
the Seine, roused from its progress through yielding meadows, takes a
majestic bend toward the Little Andely in the bay of the cliffs, and
then sweeps out below the height on which Cœur-de-Lion planted his
subtly calculated bastions.

[Illustration: ROUEN: MONUMENT OF THE CARDINALS OF AMBOISE IN THE
CATHEDRAL]

Ah--poor fluttering rag of a ruin, so thin, so time-worn, so riddled
with storm and shell, that it droops on its rock like a torn banner
with forgotten victories in its folds! How much more eloquently these
tottering stones tell their story, how much deeper into the past they
take us, than the dapper weather-tight castles--Pierrefonds, Langeais,
and the rest--on which the arch-restorer has worked his will, reducing
them to mere museum specimens, archæological toys, from which all
the growths of time have been ruthlessly stripped! The eloquence of
the Château Gaillard lies indeed just there--in its telling us so
discursively, so plaintively, the _whole_ story of the centuries--how
long it has stood, how much it has seen, how far the world has
travelled since then, and to what a hoarse, cracked whisper the voice
of feudalism and chivalry has dwindled....

The town that once cowered under the protection of those fallen
ramparts still groups its stout old houses about a church so grey
and venerable, yet so sturdily planted on its ancient piers, that
one might fancy its compassionately bidding the poor ghost of a
fortress come down and take shelter beneath its vaultings. Commune and
castle, they have changed places with the shifting fortunes of the
centuries, the weak growth of the town outstripping the arrogant brief
bloom of the fortress--Richard’s “fair daughter of one year”--which had
called it arbitrarily into being. The fortress itself is now no more
than one of the stage-properties of the Muse of History; but the town,
poor little accidental offshoot of a military exigency, has built up a
life for itself, become an abiding centre of human activities--though,
by an accident in which the traveller cannot but rejoice, it still
keeps, in spite of its sound masonry and air of ancient health, that
almost unmodernised aspect which makes some little French burghs recall
the figure of a lively centenarian, all his faculties still active, but
wearing the dress of a former day.

Regaining the route de Paris, we passed once more into the normal Seine
landscape, with smiling towns close-set on its shores, with lilac
and wistaria pouring over high walls, with bright little cafés on
sunny village squares, with flotillas of pleasure-boats moored under
willow-shaded banks.

Never more vividly than in this Seine country does one feel the amenity
of French manners, the long process of social adaptation which has
produced so profound and general an intelligence of life. Every one
we passed on our way, from the canal-boatman to the white-capped
baker’s lad, from the _marchande des quatre saisons_ to the white dog
curled philosophically under her cart, from the pastry-cook putting
a fresh plate of _brioches_ in his appetising window to the curé’s
_bonne_ who had just come out to drain the lettuce on the curé’s
doorstep--all these persons (under which designation I specifically
include the dog) took their ease or pursued their business with that
cheerful activity which proceeds from an intelligent acceptance of
given conditions. They each had their established niche in life, the
frankly avowed interests and preoccupations of their order, their pride
in the smartness of the canal-boat, the seductions of the show-window,
the glaze of the _brioches_, the crispness of the lettuce. And this
admirable _fitting into the pattern_, which seems almost as if it were
a moral outcome of the universal French sense of form, has led the race
to the happy, the momentous discovery that good manners are a short
cut to one’s goal, that they lubricate the wheels of life instead of
obstructing them. This discovery--the result, as it strikes one, of the
application of the finest of mental instruments to the muddled process
of living--seems to have illuminated not only the social relation but
its outward, concrete expression, producing a finish in the material
setting of life, a kind of conformity in inanimate things--forming,
in short, the background of the spectacle through which we pass, the
canvas on which it is painted, and expressing itself no less in the
trimness of each individual garden than in that insistence on civic
dignity and comeliness so miraculously maintained, through every
torment of political passion, every change of social conviction, by a
people resolutely addressed to the intelligent enjoyment of living.

By Vernon, with its trim lime-walks _en berceau_, by Mantes with its
bright gardens, and the graceful over-restored church which dominates
its square, we passed on to Versailles, forsaking the course of the
Seine that we might have a glimpse of the country about Fontainebleau.

At the top of the route du Buc, which climbs by sharp windings from
the Place du Château at Versailles, one comes upon the arches of the
aqueduct of Buc--one of the monuments of that splendid folly which
created the “Golden House” of Louis XIV, and drew its miraculous
groves and gardens from the waterless plain of Versailles. The
aqueduct, forming part of the extravagant scheme of irrigation of which
the Machine de Marly and the great canal of Maintenon commemorate
successive disastrous phases, frames, in its useless lofty openings,
such charming glimpses of the country to the southwest of Versailles,
that it takes its place among those abortive architectural experiments
which seem, after all, to have been completely justified by time.

[Illustration: LE PETIT ANDELY: VIEW OF THE TOWN AND CHÂTEAU GAILLARD]

The landscape upon which the arches look is a high-lying region of
wood and vale, with châteaux at the end of long green vistas, and old
flowery villages tucked into folds of the hills. At the first turn of
the road above Versailles the well-kept suburbanism of the Parisian
environ gives way to the real look of the country--well-kept and
smiling still, but tranquil and sweetly shaded, with big farmyards,
quiet country lanes, and a quiet country look in the peasants’ faces.

In passing through some parts of France one wonders where the
inhabitants of the châteaux go when they emerge from their gates--so
interminably, beyond those gates, do the flat fields, divided by
straight unshaded roads, reach out to every point of the compass; but
here the wooded undulations of the country, the friendliness of the
villages, the recurrence of big rambling farm-steads--some, apparently,
the remains of fortified monastic granges--all suggest the possibility
of something resembling the English rural life, with its traditional
ties between park and fields.

The brief journey between Versailles and Fontainebleau offers--if
one takes the longer way, by Saint Rémy-les-Chevreuse and Etampes--a
succession of charming impressions, more varied than one often finds in
a long day’s motor-run through France; and midway one comes upon the
splendid surprise of Dourdan.

Ignorance is not without its æsthetic uses; and to drop down into the
modest old town without knowing--or having forgotten, if one prefers
to put it so--the great castle of Philip Augustus, which, moated,
dungeoned, ivy-walled, still possesses its peaceful central square--to
come on this vigorous bit of mediæval arrogance, with the little houses
of Dourdan still ducking their humble roofs to it in an obsequious
circle--well! to taste the full flavour of such sensations, it is worth
while to be of a country where the last new grain-elevator or office
building is the only monument that receives homage from the surrounding
architecture.

Dourdan, too, has the crowning charm of an old inn facing its
_château-fort_--such an inn as Manon and des Grieux dined in on the
way to Paris--where, in a large courtyard shaded by trees, one may
feast on strawberries and cheese at a table enclosed in clipped shrubs,
with dogs and pigeons amicably prowling for crumbs, and the host and
hostess, their maid-servants, ostlers and _marmitons_ breakfasting at
another long table, just across the hedge. Now that the demands of
the motorist are introducing modern plumbing and Maple furniture into
the uttermost parts of France, these romantic old inns, where it is
charming to breakfast, if precarious to sleep, are becoming as rare
as the mediæval keeps with which they are, in a way, contemporaneous;
and Dourdan is fortunate in still having two such perfect specimens to
attract the attention of the archæologist.

Etampes, our next considerable town, seemed by contrast rather
featureless and disappointing; yet for that very reason, so typical
of the average French country town--dry, compact, unsentimental, as
if avariciously hoarding a long rich past--that its one straight
grey street and squat old church will hereafter always serve for the
_ville de province_ background in my staging of French fiction. Beyond
Etampes, as one approaches Fontainebleau, the scenery grows extremely
picturesque, with bold outcroppings of blackened rock, fields of
golden broom, groves of birch and pine--first hints of the fantastic
sandstone scenery of the forest. And presently the long green aisles
opened before us in all the freshness of spring verdure--tapering away
right and left to distant _ronds-points_, to mossy stone crosses and
obelisks--and leading us toward sunset to the old town in the heart of
the forest.



IV

THE LOIRE AND THE INDRE


Fontainebleau is charming in May, and at no season do its glades more
invitingly detain the wanderer; but it belonged to the familiar,
the already-experienced part of our itinerary, and we had to press
on to the unexplored. So after a day’s roaming of the forest, and a
short flight to Moret, mediævally seated in its stout walls on the
poplar-edged Loing, we started on our way to the Loire.

Here, too, our wheels were still on beaten tracks; though the morning’s
flight across country to Orléans was meant to give us a glimpse of a
new region. But on that unhappy morning Boreas was up with all his
pack, and hunted us savagely across the naked plain, now behind, now
on our quarter, now dashing ahead to lie in ambush behind a huddled
village, and leap on us as we rounded its last house. The plain
stretched on interminably, and the farther it stretched the harder
the wind raced us; so that Pithiviers, spite of dulcet associations,
appeared to our shrinking eyes only as a wind-break, eagerly striven
for and too soon gained and passed; and when, at luncheon-time, we beat
our way, spent and wheezing, into Orléans, even the serried memories of
that venerable city endeared it to us less than the fact that it had an
inn where we might at last find shelter.

The above wholly inadequate description of an interesting part of
France will have convinced any rational being that motoring is no way
to see the country. And that morning it certainly was not; but then,
what of the afternoon? When we rolled out of Orléans after luncheon,
both the day and the scene had changed; and what other form of travel
could have brought us into such communion with the spirit of the Loire
as our smooth flight along its banks in the bland May air? For, after
all, if the motorist sometimes misses details by going too fast, he
sometimes has them stamped into his memory by an opportune puncture
or a recalcitrant “magneto”; and if, on windy days, he has to rush
through nature blindfold, on golden afternoons such as this he can
drain every drop of her precious essence.

Certainly we got a great deal of the Loire as we followed its windings
that day: a great sense of the steely breadth of its flow, the amenity
of its shores, the sweet flatness of the richly gardened and vineyarded
landscape, as of a highly cultivated but slightly insipid society; an
impression of long white villages and of stout conical towns on little
hills; of old brown Beaugency in its cup between two heights, and
Madame de Pompadour’s Ménars on its bright terraces; of Blois, nobly
bestriding the river at a noble bend; and farther south, of yellow
cliffs honeycombed with strange dwellings; of Chaumont and Amboise
crowning their heaped-up towns; of _manoirs_, walled gardens, rich
pastures, willowed islands; and then, toward sunset, of another long
bridge, a brace of fretted church-towers, and the widespread roofs of
Tours.

Had we visited by rail the principal places named in this itinerary,
necessity would have detained us longer in each, and we should have
had a fuller store of specific impressions; but we should have missed
what is, in one way, the truest initiation of travel, the sense of
continuity, of relation between different districts, of familiarity
with the unnamed, unhistoried region stretching between successive
centres of human history, and exerting, in deep unnoticed ways, so
persistent an influence on the turn that history takes. And after
all--though some people seem to doubt the fact--it is possible to
stop a motor and get out of it; and if, on our way down the Loire, we
exercised this privilege infrequently, it was because, here again, we
were in a land of old acquaintance, of which the general topography was
just the least familiar part.

It was not till, two days later, we passed out of Tours--not, in fact,
till we left to the northward the towered pile of Loches--that we
found ourselves once more in a new country. It was a cold day of high
clouds and flying sunlight: just the sky to overarch the wide rolling
landscape through which the turns of the Indre were leading us. To the
south, whither we were bound, lay the Berry--the land of George Sand;
while to the northwest low acclivities sloped away, with villages
shining on their sides. One arrow of sunlight, I remember, transfixed
for a second an unknown town on one of these slopes: a town of some
consequence, with walls and towers that flashed far-off and mysterious
across the cloudy plain. Who has not been tantalised in travelling,
by the glimpse of such cities--unnamed, undiscoverable afterward by
the minutest orientations of map and guide-book? Certainly, to the
uninitiated, no hill-town is visible on that particularly level section
of the map of France; yet there sloped the hill, there shone the
town--not a moment’s mirage, but the companion of an hour’s travel,
dominating the turns of our road, beckoning to us across the increasing
miles, and causing me to vow, as we lost the last glimpse of its
towers, that next year I would go back and make it give up its name.

[Illustration: ORLÉANS: GENERAL VIEW OF THE TOWN]

But now we were approaching a town with a name--a name so encrusted
and overgrown with associations that it was undeniably disappointing,
as we reached its outskirts, to find Châteauroux--aside from its fine
old château on the Indre--so exactly like other dull French towns,
so provokingly unconscious of being one of the capital cities of
literature. And it seems, in fact, literally as well as figuratively
unaware of its distinction. Fame throws its circles so wide that it
makes not a ripple near home; and even the alert landlady of the Hôtel
Sainte Catherine wrinkled her brows perplexedly at our question: “Is
one permitted to visit the house of George Sand?”

“_Le château de George Sand?_ (A pause of reflection.) _C’est
l’écrivain, n’est-ce pas?_ (Another pause.) _C’est à Nohant, le
château? Mais, Madame, je ne saurais vous le dire._”

Yet here was the northern gate of the Sand country--it was here that,
for years, the leaders of the most sedentary profession of a sedentary
race--the _hommes de lettres_ of France--descended from the Paris
express, and took a diligence on their pilgrimage to the oracle. When
one considers the fatigue of the long day’s railway journey, and the
French dread of _déplacements_, the continual stream of greatness that
Paris poured out upon Nohant gives the measure of what Nohant had to
offer in return.

As we sat at breakfast in the inn dining-room we irreverently pictured
some of these great personages--Liszt, Sainte-Beuve, Gautier, Dumas
fils, Flaubert--illustrious figures in the queer dishabille of travel,
unwinding strange _cache-nez_, solicitous for embroidered carpet-bags,
seated in that very room over their coffee and omelette, or climbing
to the coupé of the diligence outside. And then we set out on the same
road.

Straight as an arrow, after the unvarying fashion of the French
government highway, it runs southeast through vast wheatfields, past
barns and farmhouses grouped as in the vanished “drawing-books” of
infancy--now touching, now deserting the Indre banks, as the capricious
river throws its poplar-edged loops across the plain. But presently we
began to mount insensibly; till at length a sharp turn, and an abrupt
fall of the land, brought us out on a ridge above the plain of the
Berry, with the river reappearing below, and far, far south a blue haze
of mountains.

The road, after that, descends again by gentle curves, acquainting
one gradually with the charming details of the foreground--pale-green
copses, fields hedged with hawthorn, long lines of poplars in the
plain--while, all the way, the distant horizon grows richer, bluer
and more mysterious. It is a wide lonely country, with infrequent
villages--mere hamlets--dotting the fields; one sees how the convivial
Dudevant, coming from the livelier Gascony, might have found it, for
purposes of pot-house sociability, a little thinly settled. At one of
these small lonely villages--Vicq--just where the view spreads widest,
the road loses it again by a gradual descent of a mile or so; and at
the foot of the hill, among hawthorn and lilac hedges, through the
boughs of budding trees, a high slate roof shows to the left--the roof
of a plain-faced fawn-coloured house, the typical _gentilhommière_ of
the French country-side.

No other house is in sight: only, from behind the trees, peep two or
three humble tiled cottages, dependencies of the larger pile. There
is nothing to tell us the name of the house--nothing to signalise
it, to take it out of the common. It stands there large, placid,
familiarly related to the high-road and the farm, like one side of
the extraordinary woman it sheltered; and perhaps that fact helps to
suggest its name, to render almost superfluous our breathless question
to the pretty goose-girl knitting under the hedge.

“_Mais oui, Madame--c’est Nohant._”

The goose-girl--pink as a hawthorn bud, a “kerchief” tied about her
curls--might really, in the classic phrase of sentimental travel, have
“stepped out” of one of the novels written yonder, under the high roof
to which she pointed: she had the honest savour of the _terroir_,
yet with that superadded grace that the author of the novels has
been criticised for bestowing on her peasants. She formed, at any
rate, a charming link between our imagination and the famous house;
and we presently found that the miracle which had preserved her in
all her 1830 grace had been extended to the whole privileged spot,
which seemed, under a clear glass bell of oblivion, to have been kept
intact, unchanged, like some wonderful “exhibit” illustrative of the
extraordinary history lived within it.

[Illustration: NOHANT: CHÂTEAU OF GEORGE SAND]

The house faces diagonally toward the road, from which a high wall
once screened it; but it is written in the _Histoire de ma vie_ that
M. Dudevant, in a burst of misdirected activity, threw down several
yards of this wall, and filled the opening with a hedge. The hedge
is still there; and thanks to this impulse of destruction, the
traveller obtains a glimpse of grass terraces and stone steps, set in
overgrown thickets of lilac, hawthorn and acacia, and surmounted by the
long tranquil front of the château. On each side, beyond the stretch
of hedge, the wall begins again; terminating, at one corner of the
property, in a massive old cow-stable with a round pepper-pot tower;
at the opposite end is a charming conical-roofed garden-pavilion, with
mossy steps ascending to it from the road.

At right angles to the highway, a shady lane leads down past the farm
buildings; and following this, one comes, around their flank, on a
large pleasant untidy farm-yard, full of cows and chickens, and divided
by the long range of the _communs_ from the entrance-court of the
château. Farm-yard and court both face on a small grassy place--what,
in England, would pass for a diminutive common--in the centre of which,
under an ancient walnut-tree, stands a much more ancient church--a
church so tiny, black and shrunken that it somehow suggests a blind
old peasant woman mumbling and dozing in the shade. This is the parish
church of Nohant; and a few yards from it, adjoining the court of
the château, lies the little walled graveyard which figures so often
in the _Histoire de ma vie_, and where she who described it now rests
with her kin. The graveyard is defended from intrusion by a high wall
and a locked gate; and after all her spirit is not there, but in the
house and the garden--above all, in the little cluster of humble old
cottages enclosing the shady place about the church, and constituting,
apparently, the whole village of Nohant. Like the goose-girl, these
little houses are surprisingly picturesque and sentimental; and their
mossy roofs, their clipped yews, the old white-capped women who sit
spinning on their doorsteps, supply almost too ideal an answer to one’s
hopes.

[Illustration: NOHANT: GARDEN PAVILION]

And when, at last, excitedly and enchantedly, one has taken in the
quiet perfection of it all, and turned to confront the great question:
Does a sight of Nohant deepen the mystery, or elucidate it?--one can
only answer, in the cautious speech of the New England casuist: _Both._
For if it helps one to understand one side of George Sand’s life, it
seems actually to cast a thicker obscurity over others--even if, among
the different sides contemplated, one includes only those directly
connected with the place, and not the innumerable facets that reflected
Paris, Venice, Fontainebleau and Majorca.

The first surprise is to find the place, on the whole, so much
more--shall one say?--dignified and decent, so much more conscious
of social order and restraints, than the early years of the life led
in it. The pictures of Nohant in the _Histoire de ma vie_ are unlike
any other description of French provincial manners at that period,
suggesting rather an affinity with the sombre Brontë background than
the humdrum but conventional and orderly existence of the French rural
gentry.

When one recalls the throng of motley characters who streamed in and
out of that quiet house--the illegitimate children of both sides,
living in harmony with one another and with the child of wedlock,
the too-intimate servants, the peasant playmates, the drunken boon
companions--when one turns to the Hogarthian pictures of midnight
carouses presided over by the uproarious Hippolyte and the sombrely
tippling Dudevant, while their wives sat disgusted, but apparently
tolerant, above stairs, one feels one’s self in the sinister gloom
of Wildfell Hall rather than in the light temperate air of a French
province. And somehow, unreasonably of course, one expects the
house to bear, even outwardly, some mark of that dark disordered
period--or, if not, then of the cheerful but equally incoherent and
inconceivable existence led there when the timid Madame Dudevant was
turning into the great George Sand, and the strange procession which
continued to stream through the house was composed no longer of drunken
gentlemen-farmers and left-handed peasant relations, but of an almost
equally fantastic and ill-assorted company of ex-priests, naturalists,
journalists, Saint-Simonians, riders of every conceivable religious,
political and literary hobby, among whom the successive tutors of
the adored Maurice--forming in themselves a line as long as the
kings in _Macbeth_!--perhaps take the palm for oddness of origin and
adaptability of manners.

One expected the scene of these confused and incessant comings and
goings to wear the injured _déclassé_ air of a house which has never
had its rights respected--a house long accustomed to jangle its
dinner-bell in vain and swing its broken hinges unheeded; and instead,
one beholds this image of aristocratic well-being, this sober edifice,
conscious in every line of its place in the social scale, of its
obligations to the church and cottages under its wing, its rights over
the acres surrounding it. And so one may, not too fancifully, recognise
in it the image of those grave ideals to which George Sand gradually
conformed the passionate experiment of her life; may even indulge one’s
self by imagining that an old house so marked in its very plainness,
its conformity, must have exerted, over a mind as sensitive as hers,
an unperceived but persistent influence, giving her that centralising
weight of association and habit which is too often lacking in modern
character, and standing ever before her as the shrine of those
household pieties to which, inconsistently enough, but none the less
genuinely, the devotion of her last years was paid.



V

NOHANT TO CLERMONT


There happened to us, on leaving Nohant, what had happened after
Beauvais: the quiet country house by the roadside, like the mighty
Gothic choir, possessed our thoughts to the exclusion of other
impressions. As far as La Châtre, indeed--the little town on the Indre,
where young Madame Dudevant spent a winter to further her husband’s
political ambitions--we were still within the Nohant radius; and it was
along the straight road we were travelling that poor old Madame Dupin
de Francueil--_si douillette_ that she could hardly make the round of
the garden--fled in her high-heeled slippers on the fatal night when
her son, returning from a gay supper at La Châtre, was flung from his
horse and killed at the entrance to the town. These scenes from the
_Histoire de ma vie_ are so vivid, they live so poignantly in memory,
that in reliving them on the spot one feels, with Goncourt, how great
their writer would have been had her intrepid pen more often remained
_dans le vrai_.

La Châtre is a charming town, with a remarkably picturesque approach,
on the Nohant side, across an old bridge out of which an old house,
with a steep terraced garden, seems to grow with the conscious
pleasure of well-grouped masonry; and the streets beyond have an air
of ripe experience tempered by gaiety, like that of those ironic old
eighteenth-century faces wherein the wrinkles are as gay as dimples.

Southward from La Châtre, the road runs through a beautiful hilly
country to Montluçon on the Cher: a fine old border town, with a
brave fighting past, and interesting relics of Bourbon ascendancy;
but now deeply disfigured by hideous factories and long grimy streets
of operatives’ houses. In deploring the ravages of modern industry
on one of these rare old towns, it is hard to remember that they
are not museum pieces, but settlements of human beings with all the
normal desire to prosper at whatever cost to the physiognomy of their
birthplace; and Montluçon in especial seems to have been a very
pelican to the greed of her offspring.

We had meant to spend the night there, but there was a grimness about
the inn--the special grimness of which the commercial travellers’ hotel
in the French manufacturing town holds the depressing secret--that
forbade even a glance at the bedrooms; and though it was near sunset
we pressed on for Vichy. We had, in consequence, but a cold twilight
glimpse of the fine gorge of Montaigut, through which the road cuts
its way to Gannat, the first town to the north of the Limagne; and
night had set in when we traversed the plain of the Allier. On good
French roads, however, a motor-journey by night is not without its
compensations; and our dark flight through mysterious fields and
woods terminated, effectively enough, with the long descent down a
lamp-garlanded boulevard into the inanimate white watering-place.

[Illustration: CLERMONT-FERRAND: NOTRE-DAME DU PORT]

Vichy, in fact, had barely opened the shutters of its fashionable
hotels: the season does not begin till June, and in May only a few
premature bathers--mostly English--shiver in corners of the marble
halls, or disconsolately peruse last year’s news in the deserted
reading-rooms. But even in this semi-chrysalis stage the town presented
itself, the next morning, as that rarest of spectacles--grace
triumphant over the processes of the toilet. Only a pretty woman and a
French _ville d’eau_ can look really charming in morning dishabille;
and the way in which Vichy accomplishes the feat would be a lesson to
many pretty women.

The place, at all seasons, is an object-lesson to less enlightened
municipalities; and when one finds one’s self vainly wishing that art
and history, and all the rich tapestry of the past, might somehow be
brought before the eyes of our self-sufficient millions, one might
pause to ask if the sight of a well-kept, self-respecting French town,
carefully and artistically planned as a setting to the amenities of
life, would not, after all, offer the more salutary and surprising
example.

Vichy, even among French towns, stands out as a singularly finished
specimen of what such municipal pride can accomplish. From its broad
plane-shaded _promenade_, flanked by bright-faced hotels, and by
the arcades of the Casino, to the park on the Allier, and the wide
circumjacent boulevards, it wears, at every turn, the same trim holiday
air, the rouge and patches of smooth gravel, bright flower-borders,
gay shops, shady benches, inviting cafés. Even the cab-stands, with
their smart vis-à-vis and victorias drawn by plump cobs in tinkling
harnesses, seem part of a dream-town, where all that is usually sordid
and shabby has been touched by the magic wand of trimness; or where
some utopian millionaire has successfully demonstrated that the sordid
and shabby need never exist at all.

But, to the American observer, Vichy is perhaps most instructive just
because it is not the millionaire’s wand which has worked the spell;
because the town owes its gaiety and its elegance, not to the private
villa, the rich man’s “showplace,” but to wise public expenditure of
the money which the bathers annually pour into its exchequer.

It was, however, rather for the sake of its surroundings than for
the study of its unfolding season, that we had come there; and the
neighbouring country offered the richest return for our enterprise.

From the plain of the Limagne the hills slope up behind Vichy in a
succession of terraces divided by streams and deeply-wooded glens, and
connected by the interlacing of admirable roads that civilises the
remotest rural districts of France. Climbing these gradual heights to
the hill-village of Ferrières, we had, the day after our arrival, our
first initiation into what the near future held for us--a glorious
vision, across the plain, of the Monts Dore and the Monts de Dôme.
The blue mountain haze that had drawn us steadily southward, from our
first glimpse of it on the heights of the Berry, now resolved itself
into a range of wild volcanic forms, some curved like the bell-shaped
apses of the churches of Auvergne, some slenderly cup-like, and
showing the hollow rim of the spent crater; all fantastic, individual,
indescribably differentiated in line and colour from mountain forms
of less violent origin. And between them and us lay the richest
contrasting landscape, the deep meadows and luxuriant woodlands of the
Allier vale, with here and there a volcanic knoll lifting on its crest
an old town or a Rhenish-looking castle. The landscape, thus viewed,
presents a perplexing mixture of suggestions, recalling now the brown
hill-villages of Umbria, now the robber castles of the Swiss Rhineland;
with a hint, again, of the Terra di Lavore in its bare mountain lines,
and the prodigal fertility of their lower slopes; so that one felt
one’s self moving in a confusion of scenes romantically combined, as in
the foreground of a Claude or a Wilson, for the greater pleasure of the
eclectic eye.

The only landscape that seems to have been excluded from the
composition is that of France; all through Auvergne, we never
felt ourselves in France. But that is, of course, merely because
the traveller’s France is apt to be mainly made up of bits of the
Ile-de-France and Normandy and Brittany; and not till one has
explored the central and southwestern provinces does one learn of the
countless Frances within France, and realise that one may find one’s
“Switzerland, one’s Italy” without crossing the Alps to reach them.

We had, the next day, a closer impression of the scene we had looked
down on from Ferrières; motoring first along the high ridge above
the Limagne to the ancient black hill-town of Thiers, and thence
descending again to the plain. Our way led across it, by the charming
castled town of Pont-de-Château, to Clermont-Ferrand, which spreads its
swarthy mass at the base of the Puy de Dôme--that strangest, sternest
of cities, all built and paved in the black volcanic stone of Volvic,
and crowned by the sinister splendour of its black cathedral. It was
Viollet-le-Duc who added the west front and towers to this high ancient
pile; and for once his rash hand was so happily inspired that, at the
first glimpse of his twin spires soaring above the roofs of Clermont,
one forgives him--for the moment--the wrong he did to Blois, to
Pierrefonds and Vézelay.



VI

IN AUVERGNE


At last we were really in Auvergne. On our balcony at Royat, just
under the flank of the Puy de Dôme, we found ourselves in close
communion with its tossed heights, its black towns, its threatening
castles. And Royat itself--even the dull new watering-place quarter--is
extremely characteristic of the region: hanging in a cleft of the great
volcanic upheaval, with hotels, villas, gardens, vineyards clutching
precariously at every ledge and fissure, as though just arrested in
their descent on the roofs of Clermont.

As a watering-place Royat is not an ornamental specimen of its class;
and it has the farther disadvantage of being connected with Clermont
by a long dusty suburb, noisy with tram-cars; but as a centre for
excursions it offers its good hotels and “modern conveniences” at the
precise spot most favourable to the motorist, who may radiate from it
upon almost every centre of interest in Auvergne, and return at night
to digestible food and clean beds--two requisites for which, in central
France, one is often doomed to pine.

Auvergne, one of the most interesting, and hitherto almost the least
known, of the old French provinces, offers two distinct and equally
striking sides to the appreciative traveller: on the one hand, its
remarkably individual church architecture, and on the other, the
no less personal character of its landscape. Almost all its towns
are distinguished by one of those ancient swarthy churches, with
western narthex, great central tower, and curious incrustations of
polychrome lava, which marked, in Auvergne, as strongly distinctive
an architectural impulse as flowered, on a vastly larger scale, and
a century or more later, in the Gothic of the Ile de France. And the
towns surrounding these churches, on the crest or flank of one of the
volcanic eminences springing from the plain--the towns themselves, with
their narrow perpendicular streets and tall black houses, are so darkly
individual, so plainly akin to the fierce predatory castles on the
neighbouring hills, that one is arrested at every turn by the desire
to follow up the obscure threads of history connecting them with this
little-known portion of the rich French past.

But to the traveller restricted by time, the other side of the
picture--its background, rather, of tormented blue peaks and
wide-spread forest--which must assert itself, at all seasons, quite as
distinctively as the historic and architectural character of the towns,
is likely, in May, to carry off the victory. We had come, at any rate,
with the modest purpose of taking a mere bird’s-eye view of the region,
such a flight across the scene as draws one back, later, to brood and
hover; and our sight of the landscape from the Royat balcony confirmed
us in the resolve to throw as sweeping a glance as possible, and defer
the study of details to our next--our already-projected!--visit.

The following morning, therefore, we set out early for the heart of the
Monts Dore. Our road carried us southward, along a series of ridges
above the wide Allier vale, and then up and down, over wild volcanic
hills, now densely wooded, now desolately bare. We were on the road
to Issoire and La Chaise Dieu, two of the most notable old towns of
southern Auvergne; but, in pursuit of scenery, we reluctantly turned
off at the village of Coudes, at the mouth of a lateral valley, and
struck up toward the western passes which lead to the Pic de Sancy.

Some miles up this valley, which follows the capricious windings of
the Couzes, lie the baths of Saint Nectaire-le-Bas, romantically
planted in a narrow defile, beneath the pyramidal Romanesque church
which the higher-lying original village lifts up on a steep splinter
of rock. The landscape beyond Saint Nectaire grows more rugged and
Alpine in character: the pastures have a Swiss look, and the shaggy
mountain-sides are clothed with a northern growth of beech and pine.
Presently, at a turn of the road, we came on the little crater-lake
of Chambon, its vivid blueness set in the greenest of meadows, and
overhung by the dark basalt cliff which carries on its summit the
fortified castle of Murols. The situation of Murols, lifted on its
shaft of rock above that lonely upland valley, is in itself impressive
enough to bring out the full value of such romantic suggestions as it
has to offer; and the monument is worthy of its site. It is in fact a
very noble ruin, raising its central keep above two outer circuits of
battered masonry, the ampler and later of which shows the classical
pilasters and large fenestration of what must have been one of the
stateliest specimens of the last stage of French feudal architecture.
Though the guidebooks record a mention of Murols as early as the
thirteenth century, the castle now standing is all of later date,
and the great rectangular exterior is an interesting example of the
transitional period when Italian palace architecture began to be
grafted on the rugged stock of French military construction.

Just beyond the lake of Chambon the road begins to mount the long
curves of the Col de Diane, the pass which leads over into the valley
of Mont Dore. As we rose through bleak meadows and patches of scant
woodland, the mountains of Auvergne unrolled themselves to the east
in one of those lonely tossing expanses of summit and ridge and chasm
that suggest the mysterious undulations of some uninhabited planet.
Though the Col de Diane is not a high pass, it gives, from its yoke,
a strangely memorable impression of distance and mystery; partly,
perhaps, because in that desert region there is neither village nor
house to break the labyrinth of peaks; but chiefly because of the
convulsed outlines into which they have been tossed by subterranean
fires.

A cold wind swept the top of the pass, and snow still lay under the
rocks by the roadside; so that it was cheering to the spirits, as well
as to the eye, when we presently began our descent through dark pine
forests into the vale of the Dordogne. The baths of Mont Dore lie
directly beneath the pass, at the mouth of a valley hollowed out of
the side of the Pic de Sancy, the highest peak in Auvergne. In spite
of milder air and bright spring foliage we were still distinctly in
high places; and Mont Dore itself, not yet decked for the entertainment
of its bathers, had the poverty-stricken look which everywhere marks
the real mountain village. Later, no doubt, when its hotels are
open, and its scanty gardens in bloom, it takes on a thin veneer of
frivolity; but it must always be an austere-looking village, with its
ill-kept cobble-stone streets, and gaunt stone houses grouped against
a background of Alpine pastures. We were not sorry, therefore, that
its few restaurants presented barred shutters to our mid-day hunger,
and that we were obliged to follow the first footsteps of the infant
Dordogne down the valley to the lower-lying baths of Bourboule.

The Dordogne is a child of lusty growth, and at its very leap from the
cradle, under the Pic de Sancy, it rolls a fine brown torrent beneath
steeply wooded banks. Its course led us rapidly down the mountain
glen to the amiable but somewhat characterless little watering-place
of La Bourboule, set in a depression of the hills, with a background
of slopes which, in summer, might offer fairly pleasant walks between
one’s douches; and here, at a fresh white hotel with an affable
landlady, we lunched on trout that must have leapt straight from the
Dordogne into the frying-pan.

[Illustration: ORCIVAL: THE CHURCH]

After luncheon we once more took our way along the lively curves of the
river; to part with them at last, reluctantly, a few miles down the
valley, and strike out across a dull plateau to the mountain town of
Laqueille--a gaunt wind-beaten place, with nothing of note to offer
except its splendid view from the dizzy verge of a high cornice which
overhangs the valley running south from the chain of the Dôme. Beyond
Laqueille, again, we began to descend by long windings; and at last,
turning off from the direct road to Royat, we engaged ourselves in a
series of wooded gorges, in search of the remote village of Orcival.

The church of Orcival is one of the most noted of that strange group
of Auvergnat churches which some students of French Romanesque are
disposed to attribute, not only to one brief period of time, but to
the hand of one architect; so closely are they allied, not alone in
plan and construction, but in their peculiar and original decorative
details. We had resolved, therefore, not to return to Royat without a
sight of Orcival; and spite of the misleading directions plentifully
bestowed on us by the way, and resulting in endless doublings through
narrow lonely glens, we finally came, in the neck of the last and
narrowest, upon a huddled group of stone roofs with a church rising
nobly above them.

Here it was at last--and our first glance told us how well worth the
search we had made for it. But a second made evident the disturbing
fact that a cattle-fair was going on in the village; and though this is
not an unusual event in French towns, or one calculated, in general, to
interfere with the movements of the sightseer, we soon saw that, owing
to the peculiar position of Orcival, which is jammed into the head of
its glen as tightly as a cork in a bottle, the occupation of the square
about the church formed a complete check to circulation.

And the square was fully occupied: it presented, as we descended on it,
an agitated surface of blue human backs, and dun and white bovine ones,
so closely and inextricably mixed that any impact from without merely
sent a wave across the mass, without making the slightest break in its
substance. On its edge, therefore, we halted; the church, with its
beautiful rounded _chevet_ and central pyramid-tower, islanded a few
yards away across a horned sea which divided it from us as hopelessly
as Egypt from Israel; and the waves of the sea setting toward us with
somewhat threatening intent at the least sign of our attempting to
cross it. There was therefore nothing to be done but to own ourselves
intruders, and defer a sight of Orcival till our next visit; and with
much backing and wriggling, and some unfavourable comment on the part
of the opposition, we effected a crestfallen exit from that interesting
but inhospitable village.

The road thence to Royat climbs over the long Col de Ceyssat, close
under the southern side of the Puy de Dôme, and we looked up longingly
at the bare top of the mountain, yearning to try the ascent, but
fearing that our “horse-power” was not pitched to such heights. That
adventure too was therefore deferred till our next visit, which every
renunciation of the kind was helping to bring nearer and make more
inevitable; and we pushed on to Royat across the plain of Laschamp,
noted in the records of motoring as the starting-point of the perilous
_circuit d’Auvergne_.



VII

ROYAT TO BOURGES


The term of our holiday was upon us and, stern necessity took us back,
the next day, to Vichy. We followed, this time, the road along the
western side of the Limagne, passing through the old towns of Riom
and Aigueperse. Riom, thanks to its broad boulevards and bright open
squares, struck us as the most cheerful and animated place we had seen
in Auvergne; and it has, besides, a great air of Renaissance elegance,
many of its old traceried hôtels having been built in the sixteenth
century, which saw the chief development of the town.

Aigueperse, on the contrary, spite of its situation in the same sunny
luxuriant plain, presents the morose aspect of the typical town of
Auvergne, without many compensating merits, save that of two striking
pictures of the Italian school which are to be seen in its modernised
cathedral. From Aigueperse our road struck eastward across the Limagne
to Gannat; and thence, through pleasant fields and woods, we returned
to Vichy, on the opposite edge of the plain.

We started early the next morning on our journey to the north, for
our slight experience of the inns of central France made us anxious
to reach Orléans by night. Such long runs cannot be made without the
sacrifice of much that charms and arrests one by the way; and this part
of the country should be seen at leisure, in the long summer days, when
the hotels are less sepulchrally damp, and when one can remain late out
of doors, instead of having to shiver through the evening hours around
a smoky oil-lamp, in a room which will not bear inspection even by that
inadequate light.

We suffered, I remember, many pangs by the way; and not least, that of
having to take as a mere parenthesis the charmingly complete little
town of La Palisse on the Bèbre, with the ruined ivied castle of the
Comtes de Chabannes overhanging a curve of the river, and grouping
itself in a memorable composition with the picturesque houses below it.

Farther north, again, Moulins on the Allier inflicted a still deeper
pang; for this fine old town has considerable claims to distinction
besides the great triptych that made its name known through Europe
after the recent exhibition of French Primitives in Paris. The Virgin
of Moulins, gloriously enthroned in the cathedral among her soft-faced
Lombard angels, remains undoubtedly the crowning ornament of the town,
if only on account of the problem which she holds out, so inscrutably,
to explorers of the baffling annals of early French art. But aside
from this preëminent possession, and the interest of several minor
relics, Moulins has the attraction of its own amiable and distinguished
physiognomy. With its streets of light-coloured stone, its handsome
eighteenth-century hôtels and broad well-paved _cours_, it seemed,
after the grim black towns of the south, a singularly open and cheerful
place; and one was conscious, behind the handsome stone gateways and
balconied façades, of the existence of old panelled drawing-rooms with
pastel portraits and faded tapestry furniture.

The approach to Nevers, the old capital of the Nivernais, carried
us abruptly back to the Middle Ages, but to an exuberant northern
mediævalism far removed from the Gallo-Roman tradition of central
France. The cathedral of Nevers, with its ornate portals and
fantastically decorated clock-tower, has, in the old ducal palace
across the square, a rival more than capable of meeting its challenge
on equal grounds: a building of really gallant exterior, with fine
angle towers, and within, a great staircase commemorating in luxuriant
sculpture the legendary beginnings of that ancient house of Cleves
which, in the fifteenth century, allied itself by marriage with the
dukes of Burgundy.

At Nevers we found ourselves once more on the Loire; but only to
break from it again in a long dash across country to Bourges. At this
point we left behind us the charming diversified scenery which had
accompanied us to the borders of the Loire, and entered on a region
of low monotonous undulations, flattening out gradually into the vast
wheat-fields about Bourges. But who would wish any other setting
for that memorable silhouette, throned, from whichever point of the
compass one approaches it, in such proud isolation above the plain? One
forgets even, in a distant view of Bourges, that nature has helped, by
an opportune rise of the ground, to lift the cathedral to its singular
eminence: the hill, and the town upon it, seem so merely the unremarked
pedestal of the monument. It is not till one climbs the steep street
leading up from the Place Saint Bonnet that one realises the peculiar
topographical advantages of such a site; advantages which perhaps
partly account for the overwhelming and not quite explicable effect of
a first sight of the cathedral.

[Illustration: MOULINS: PLACE DE L’HÔTEL-DE-VILLE AND THE JACQUEMART
TOWER]

Even now, on a second visit, with the great monuments of the Ile
de France fresh in memory, we felt the same effect, and the same
difficulty in running it down, in differentiating it from the
richer, yet perhaps less deeply Gothic impression produced by the
rival churches of the north. For, begin as one will by admitting, by
insisting upon, the defects of Bourges--its irregular inharmonious
façade, its thin piers, its mean outer aisles--one yet ends in a state
where criticism perforce yields to sensation, where one surrenders
one’s self wholly to the spell of its spiritual suggestion. Certainly
it would be hard to put a finger, either within or without, on the
specific tangible cause of this feeling. Is it to be found in the
extraordinary beauty of the five western portals, so crowded with noble
and pathetic imagery and delicate ornamental detail? But the doors
of Chartres surpass even these! Is it then, if one looks within, the
rich blue and red of its dense ancient glass? But Chartres, again, has
finer glass of that unmatched period. Is it the long clear sweep of
the nave and aisles, uninterrupted by the cross-lines of transept or
chancel-screen? But if one recalls the wonderful convolutions of the
ambulatory of Canterbury, one has to confess that Gothic art--even in
its conventionalised English form--has created curves of greater poetry
and mystery, produced a more thrilling sense of shadowy consecrated
distances. Perhaps the spell of Bourges resides in a fortunate
accidental mingling of many of the qualities that predominate in this
or that more perfect structure--in the mixing of the ingredients so
that there rises from them, as one stands in one of the lofty inner
aisles, with one’s face toward the choir, that breath of mystical
devotion which issues from the very heart of mediæval Christianity.

“With this sweetness,” wrote Saint Theresa, of the Prayer of Quiet,
“the whole inner and outer man seems to be delighted, as though
some delicious ointment were poured into the soul like an exquisite
perfume ... as if we suddenly came to a place where it is exhaled,
not only from one, but from many things; and we know not what it is,
or from which one of them it comes, but they all penetrate us”.... If
Amiens, in its harmony of conception and vigour of execution, seems
to embody the developing will-power of a people passionate in belief,
and indomitable in the concrete expression of their creed, here at
Bourges one feels that other, less expressible side of the great ruling
influence of the Middle Ages--the power that willed mighty monuments
and built them, yet also, even in its moments of most brutal material
ascendancy, created the other houses, not built with hands, where the
spirits of the saints might dwell.



PART II



I

PARIS TO POITIERS


Spring again, and the long white road unrolling itself southward from
Paris. How could one resist the call?

We answered it on the blandest of late March mornings, all April in the
air, and the Seine fringing itself with a mist of yellowish willows
as we rose over it, climbing the hill to Ville d’Avray. Spring comes
soberly, inaudibly as it were, in these temperate European lands, where
the grass holds its green all winter, and the foliage of ivy, laurel,
holly, and countless other evergreen shrubs, links the lifeless to the
living months. But the mere act of climbing that southern road above
the Seine meadows seemed as definite as the turning of a leaf--the
passing from a black-and-white page to one illuminated. And every day
now would turn a brighter page for us.

Goethe has a charming verse, descriptive, it is supposed, of his first
meeting with Christiane Vulpius: “Aimlessly I strayed through the wood,
_having it in my mind to seek nothing_.”

Such, precisely, was our state of mind on that first day’s run. We were
simply pushing south toward the Berry, through a more or less familiar
country, and the real journey was to begin for us on the morrow, with
the run from Châteauroux to Poitiers. But we reckoned without our
France! It is easy enough, glancing down the long page of the Guide
Continental, to slip by such names as Versailles, Rambouillet, Chartres
and Valençay, in one’s dash for the objective point; but there is no
slipping by them in the motor, they lurk there in one’s path, throwing
out great loops of persuasion, arresting one’s flight, complicating
one’s impressions, oppressing, bewildering one with the renewed,
half-forgotten sense of the hoarded richness of France.

[Illustration: BOURGES: APSE OF THE CATHEDRAL]

Versailles first, unfolding the pillared expanse of its north façade
to vast empty perspectives of radiating avenues; then Rambouillet,
low in a damp little park, with statues along green canals, and a
look, this moist March weather, of being somewhat below sea-level;
then Maintenon, its rich red-purple walls and delicate stone ornament
reflected in the moat dividing it from the village street. Both
Rambouillet and Maintenon are characteristically French in their way of
keeping company with their villages. Rambouillet, indeed, is slightly
screened by a tall gate, a wall and trees; but Maintenon’s warm red
turrets look across the moat, straight into the windows of the opposite
houses, with the simple familiarity of a time when class distinctions
were too fixed to need emphasising.

Our third château, Valençay--which, for comparison’s sake, one may
couple with the others though it lies far south of Blois--Valençay
bears itself with greater aloofness, bidding the town “keep its
distance” down the hill on which the great house lifts its heavy
angle-towers and flattened domes. A huge cliff-like wall, enclosing the
whole southern flank of the hill, supports the terraced gardens before
the château, which to the north is divided from the road by a vast
_cour d’honneur_ with a monumental grille and gateway. The impression
is grander yet less noble.

[Illustration: CHÂTEAU OF MAINTENON]

But France is never long content to repeat her effects; and between
Maintenon and Valençay she puts Chartres and Blois. Ah, these grey old
cathedral towns with their narrow clean streets widening to a central
_place_--at Chartres a beautiful oval, like the market-place in an
eighteenth-century print--with their clipped lime-walks, high garden
walls, Balzacian gables looking out on sunless lanes under the flanks
of the granite giant! Save in the church itself, how frugally all the
effects are produced--with how sober a use of greys and blacks, and
pale high lights, as in some Van der Meer interior; yet how intense a
suggestion of thrifty compact traditional life one gets from the low
house-fronts, the barred gates, the glimpses of clean bare courts,
the calm yet quick faces in the doorways! From these faces again
one gets the same impression of remarkable effects produced by the
discreetest means. The French physiognomy if not vividly beautiful is
vividly intelligent; but the long practice of manners has so veiled
its keenness with refinement as to produce a blending of vivacity
and good temper nowhere else to be matched. And in looking at it one
feels once more, as one so often feels in trying to estimate French
architecture or the French landscape, how much of her total effect
France achieves by elimination. If marked beauty be absent from the
French face, how much more is marked dulness, marked brutality, the
lumpishness of the clumsily made and the unfinished! As a mere piece of
workmanship, of finish, the French provincial face--the peasant’s face,
even--often has the same kind of interest as a work of art.

One gets, after repeated visits to the “show” towns of France, to feel
these minor characteristics, the incidental graces of the foreground,
almost to the exclusion of the great official spectacle in the
centre of the picture; so that while the first image of Bourges or
Chartres is that of a cathedral surrounded by a blur, later memories
of the same places present a vividly individual town, with doorways,
street-corners, faces intensely remembered, and in the centre a great
cloudy Gothic splendour.

At Chartres the cloudy splendour is shot through with such effulgence
of colour that its vision, evoked by memory, seems to beat with a
fiery life of its own, as though red blood ran in its stone veins.
It is this suffusion of heat and radiance that chiefly, to the
untechnical, distinguishes it from the other great Gothic interiors. In
all the rest, colour, if it exists at all, burns in scattered unquiet
patches, between wastes of shadowy grey stone and the wan pallor of
later painted glass; but at Chartres those quivering waves of unearthly
red and blue flow into and repeat each other in rivers of light, from
their source in the great western rose, down the length of the vast
aisles and clerestory, till they are gathered up at last into the
mystical heart of the apse.

A short afternoon’s run carried us through dullish country from
Chartres to Blois, which we reached at the fortunate hour when sunset
burnishes the great curves of the Loire and lays a plum-coloured bloom
on the slate roofs overlapping, scale-like, the slope below the castle.
There are few finer _roof-views_ than this from the wall at Blois: the
blue sweep of gables and ridge-lines billowing up here and there into a
church tower with its _clocheton_ mailed in slate, or breaking to let
through the glimpse of a carved façade, or the blossoming depths of a
hanging garden; but perhaps only the eye subdued to tin housetops and
iron chimney-pots can feel the full poetry of old roofs.

Coming back to the Berry six weeks earlier than on our last year’s
visit, we saw how much its wide landscape needs the relief and
modelling given by the varied foliage of May. Between bare woods and
scarcely budded hedges the great meadows looked bleak and monotonous;
and only the village gardens hung out a visible promise of spring. But
in the sheltered enclosure at Nohant, spring seemed much nearer; at
hand already in clumps of snow-drops and violets loosening the soil,
in young red leaves on the rose-standards, and the twitter of birds
in the heavy black-fruited ivy of the graveyard wall. A gate leads
from the garden into the corner of the graveyard where George Sand and
her children lie under an ancient yew. Feudal even in burial, they
are walled off from the village dead, and the tombstone of Maurice
Sand, as well as the monstrous stone chest over his mother’s grave,
bears the name of Dudevant and asserts a claim to the barony. Strange
inconsequence of human desires, that the woman who had made her
pseudonym illustrious enough to have it assumed by her whole family
should cling in death to the obscure name of a repudiated husband; more
inconsequent still that the descendant of kings, and the priestess of
democracy and Fourierism, should insist on a right to the petty title
which was never hers, since it was never Dudevant’s to give! On the
whole, the gravestones at Nohant are disillusioning; except indeed
that of the wretched Solange, with its four tragic words: _La mère de
Jeanne._

But the real meaning of the place must be sought close by, behind the
row of tall windows opening on the tangled mossy garden. They lead,
these windows, straight into the life of George Sand: into the big
cool dining-room, with its flagged floor and simple white-panelled
walls, and the _salon_ adjoining: the _salon_, alas, so radically
remodelled in the unhappy mid-century period of wall-papers, stuffed
furniture and centre table, that one seeks in vain for a trace of
the original chatelaine of Nohant--that high-spirited, high-heeled
old Madame Dupin who still haunts the panelled dining-room and the
box-edged garden. Yet the _salon_ has its special story to tell, for
in George Sand’s culminating time just such a long table with fringed
cover and encircling arm-chairs formed the centre of French indoor
life. About this elongated board sat the great woman’s illustrious
visitors, prolonging, as at a mental _table d’hôte_, that interminable
dinner-talk which still strikes the hurried Anglo-Saxon as the
typical expression of French sociability; and here the different
arts of the household were practised--the painting, carving and fine
needle-work which a stronger-eyed generation managed to carry on by
the light of a single lamp. Here, one likes especially to fancy,
Maurice Sand exercised his chisel on the famous marionettes for the
little theatre, while his mother, fitting their costumes with skilful
fingers, listened, silent _comme une bête_, to the dissertations
of Gautier, Flaubert or Dumas. The earlier life of the house still
speaks, moreover, from the walls of the drawing-room, with the voice of
jealously treasured ancestral portraits--pictures of the demoiselles
Verrières, of the great Marshal and the beautiful Aurora--strange
memorials of a past which explains so much in the history of George
Sand, even to the tempestuous face of Solange Clésinger, looking darkly
across the room at her simpering unremorseful progenitors.

Our guide, a close-capped brown-and-ruddy _bonne_, led us next, by
circuitous passages, to the most interesting corner of the house: the
little theatre contrived with artless ingenuity out of what might have
been a store-room or wine-cellar. One should rather say the little
theatres, however, for the mistress of revels had managed to crowd two
stages into the limited space at her disposal; one, to the left, an
actual _scène_, with “life-size” scenery for real actors, the other,
facing the entrance-door, the more celebrated marionette theatre,
raised a few feet from the floor, with miniature proscenium arch and
curtain; just such a _Puppen-theatre_ as Wilhelm Meister described to
Marianne, with a prolixity which caused that amiable but flighty young
woman to fall asleep.

Between the two stages about twenty spectators might have found
seats behind the front row of hard wooden benches reserved for the
châtelaine and her most distinguished guests. A clean emptiness
now pervades this temple of the arts: an emptiness made actually
pathetic by the presence, on shelves at the back of the room, of the
whole troupe of marionettes, brushed, spotless, well cared for, and
waiting only a touch on their wires to spring into life and populate
their little stage. There they stand in wistful rows, the duenna, the
Chimène, the _grande coquette_, Pantaloon, Columbine and Harlequin,
Neapolitan fishers, odalisques and peasants, brigands and soldiers
of the guard; all carved with a certain rude vivacity, and dressed,
ingeniously and thriftily, by the indefatigable fingers which drove the
quill all night upstairs.

It brought one close to that strange unfathomable life, which only at
Nohant grows clear, shows bottom, as it were; closer still to be told
by the red-brown _bonne_ that “Monsieur Maurice” had modelled many of
his humorous peasant-types on “_les gens du pays_”; closest of all when
she added, in answer to a question as to whether Madame Sand had really
made the little frocks herself: “Oh, yes, I remember seeing her at
work on them, and helping her with it. I was twelve years old when she
died.”

[Illustration: NEUVY SAINT-SÉPULCRE: CHURCH OF THE PRECIOUS BLOOD]

Here, then, was an actual bit of the Nohant tradition, before us in
robust and lively middle age: one of the _berrichonnes_ whom George
Sand loved and celebrated, and who loved and served her in return. For
a moment it brought Nohant within touch; yet the final effect of the
contact, as one reflected on the vanished enthusiasms and ideals that
George Sand’s name revives, was the sense that the world of beliefs
and ideas has seldom travelled so fast and far as in the years between
“Indiana” and to-day.

       *       *       *       *       *

From La Châtre, just south of Nohant, we turned due west along the
valley of the Creuse, through a country possessing some local fame
for picturesqueness, but which struck us, in its early spring nudity,
as somewhat parched and chalky-looking, without sufficient woodland
to drape its angles. It makes up, however, in architectural interest
for what its landscape lacks, and not many miles beyond La Châtre the
otherwise featureless little town of Neuvy-Saint-Sépulcre presents one
feature of unusual prominence. This is the ancient round church from
which the place is named: one of those copies of the church of the
Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem with which the returning crusader dotted
western Europe. Aside from their intrinsic interest, these “sepulchre”
churches have gained importance from the fact that but three or four
are still extant. The most typical, that of Saint Bénigne at Dijon, has
been levelled to a mere crypt, and that of Cambrige deviates from the
type by reason of its octagonal dome; so that the church of Neuvy is of
quite preëminent interest. A late Romanesque nave--itself sufficiently
venerable looking to stir the imagination in its own behalf--was
appended in the early thirteenth century to the circular shrine;
but the latter still presents to the dull old street its unbroken
cylindrical wall, built close on a thousand years ago, and surmounted,
some ninety years later, by a second story with a Romanesque exterior
arcade. At this stage, however, one is left to conjecture, with the
aid of expert suggestion, what manner of covering the building was
meant to have. The present small dome, perched on the inner drum of
the upper gallery, is an expedient of the most obvious sort; and the
archæologists have inferred that the thinness of this drum may have
made a more adequate form of roofing impossible.

To the idle sight-seer, at any rate, the interior of the church is
much more suggestive than its bare outer shell. We were happy enough
to enter it toward sunset, when dusk had gathered under the heavy
encircling columns, and lights twinkled yellow on the central altar
which has so regrettably replaced the “Grotto of the Sepulchre.” It was
our added good fortune that a small train of the faithful, headed by a
red-cassocked verger and a priest with a benignant Massillon-like head,
were just making a circuit of the stations of the cross affixed to the
walls of the aisle; and as we stood withdrawn, while the procession
wound its way between shining altar and shadowy columns, some of the
faces of the peasants seemed to carry us as far into the past as the
strange symbolic masks on the capitals above their heads.

But what carries one farthest of all is perhaps the fact, well known
to modern archæology, that the original church built by Constantine
over the grotto-tomb of Christ was not a round temple at all, but a
vast basilica with semi-circular apse. The Persians destroyed this
building in the seventh century, and the Christians who undertook to
restore it could do no more than round the circle of the apse, thus
at least covering over the sacred tomb in the centre. So swift was
the succession of demolition and reconstruction in that confused and
clashing age, so vague and soon obliterated were the records of each
previous rule, that when the crusaders came they found no memory of
this earlier transformation, and carried back with them that model of
the round temple which was henceforth to stand, throughout western
Europe, as the venerated image of the primitive church of Jerusalem.

Too much lingering in this precious little building brought twilight
on us soon after we joined the Creuse at Argenton; and when we left
it again at Le Blanc lights were in the windows, and the rest of our
run to Poitiers was a ghostly flight through a moon-washed landscape,
with here and there a church tower looming in the dimness, or a heap
of ruined walls rising mysteriously above the white bend of a river.
We suffered a peculiar pang when a long-roofed pile towering overhead
told us that we were passing the great Benedictine abbey of Saint
Savin, with its matchless lining of frescoes; but a certain mental
satiety urged us on to Poitiers.

Travellers accustomed to the marked silhouette of Italian cities--to
their immediate proffer of the picturesque impression--often find
the old French provincial towns lacking in physiognomy. Each Italian
city, whether of the mountain or the plain, has an outline easily
recognisable after individual details have faded, and it is, obviously,
much easier to keep separate one’s memories of Siena and Orvieto than
of Bourges and Chartres. Perhaps, therefore, the few French towns with
definite physiognomies seem the more definite from their infrequency;
and Poitiers is foremost in this distinguished group.

[Illustration: NEUVY SAINT-SÉPULCRE: INTERIOR OF THE CHURCH]

Not that it offers the distinctive _galbe_ of such bold hill-towns as
Angoulême or Laon. Though a hill-town in fact, it somehow makes next
to nothing of this advantage, and the late Mr. Freeman was justified
in grumbling at the lack of character in its sky-line. That character
reveals itself, in fact, not in any picturesqueness of distant
effect--in no such far-seen crown as the towers of Laon or the domes
of Périgueux--but in the homogeneous interest of the old buildings
within the city: the way they carry on its packed romantic history
like the consecutive pages of a richly illuminated chronicle. The
illustration of that history begins with the strange little “temple”
of Saint John, a baptistery of the fourth century, and accounted the
earliest Christian building in France--though this applies only to the
lower story (now virtually the crypt), the upper having been added
some three hundred years later, when baptism by aspersion had replaced
the primitive plunge. Unhappily the ancient temple has suffered the
lot of the too-highly treasured relic, and fenced about, restored, and
converted into a dry little museum, has lost all that colour and pathos
of extreme age that make the charm of humbler monuments.

This charm, in addition to many others, still clings to the expressive
west front of Notre Dame la Grande, the incomparable little Romanesque
church holding the centre of the market-place. Built of a dark grey
stone which has taken on--and been suffered to retain--a bloom of
golden lichen like the trace of ancient weather-worn gilding, it
breaks, at the spring of its portal-arches, into a profusion of
serried, overlapping sculpture, which rises tier by tier to the
splendid Christ Triumphant of the crowning gable, yet never once crowds
out and smothers the structural composition, as Gothic ornament, in
its most exuberant phase, was wont to do. Through all its profusion of
statuary and ornamental carving, the front of Notre Dame preserves that
subordination to classical composition that marks the Romanesque of
southern France; but between the arches, in the great spandrils of the
doorways, up to the typically Poitevin scales of the beautiful arcaded
angle turrets, what richness of detail, what splendid play of fancy!

[Illustration: POITIERS: BAPTISTERY OF ST. JOHN]

After such completeness of beauty as this little church presents--for
its nave and transept tower are no less admirable than the more
striking front--even such other monuments as Poitiers has to offer must
suffer slightly by comparison. Saint Hilaire le Grand, that notable
eleventh-century church, with its triple aisles and its nave roofed
by cupolas, and the lower-lying temple of Sainte Radegonde, which
dates from the Merovingian queen from whom it takes its name, have
both suffered such repeated alterations that neither carries the
imagination back with as direct a flight as the slightly less ancient
Notre Dame; and the cathedral itself, which one somehow comes to last
in an enumeration of the Poitiers churches, is a singularly charmless
building. Built in the twelfth century, by Queen Eleanor of Guyenne,
at the interesting moment of transition from the round to the pointed
arch, and completed later by a wide-sprawling Gothic front, it gropes
after and fails of its effect both without and within. Yet it has one
memorable possession in its thirteenth-century choir-stalls, almost
alone of that date in France--tall severe seats, their backs formed by
pointed arches with delicate low-relief carvings between the spandrils.
There is, in especial, one small bat, with outspread web-like wings, so
exquisitely fitted into its allotted space, and with such delicacy of
observation shown in the modelling of its little half-human face, that
it remains in memory as having the permanence of something classical,
outside of dates and styles.

Having lingered over these things, and taken in by the way an
impression of the confused and rambling ducal palace, with its
magnificent _grande salle_ completed and adorned by Jean de Berry, we
began to think remorsefully of the wonders we had missed on our run
from Le Blanc to Poitiers. We could not retrace the whole distance; but
at least we could return to the curious little town of Chauvigny, of
which we had caught a tantalising glimpse above a moonlit curve of the
Vienne.

[Illustration: POITIERS: THE CHURCH OF NOTRE-DAME-LA-GRANDE]

We found it, by day, no less suggestive, and full of unsuspected
riches. Of its two large Romanesque churches, the one in the lower
town, beside the river, is notable, without, for an extremely beautiful
arcaded apse, and contains within a striking fresco of the fifteenth
century, in which Christ is represented followed by a throng of the
faithful--kings, bishops, monks and clerks--who help to carry the
cross. The other, and larger, church, planted on the summit of the
abrupt escarpment which lifts the _haute ville_ above the Vienne, has
a strange body-guard composed of no fewer than five feudal castles,
huddled so close together on the narrow top of the cliff that their
outer walls almost touch. The lack, in that open country, of easily
fortified points doubtless drove the bishops of Poitiers (who were
also barons of Chauvigny) into this strange defensive alliance with
four of their noble neighbours; and one wonders how the five-sided
ménage kept the peace, when local disturbances made it needful to take
to the rock.

The gashed walls and ivy-draped dungeons of the rival ruins make an
extraordinarily romantic setting for the curious church of Saint
Pierre, staunchly seated on an extreme ledge of the cliff, and
gathering under its flank the handful of town within the fortified
circuit. There is nothing in architecture so suggestive of extreme
age, yet of a kind of hale durability, as these thick-set Romanesque
churches, with their prudent vaulting, their solid central towers, the
close firm grouping of their apsidal chapels. The Renaissance brought
the classic style into such permanent relationship to modern life that
eleventh-century architecture seems remoter than Greece and Rome; yet
its buildings have none of the perilous frailly of the later Gothic,
and one associates the idea of romance and ruin rather with the pointed
arch than with the round.

Saint Pierre is a singularly good example of this stout old school,
which saw the last waves of barbarian invasion break at its feet, and
seems likely to see the ebb and flow of so many other tides before
its stubborn walls go under. It is in their sculptures, especially,
that these churches reach back to a dim and fearful world of which few
clues remain to us: the mysterious baleful creatures peopling their
archivolts and capitals seem to have come out of some fierce vision of
Cenobite temptation, when the hermits of the desert fought with the
painted devils of the tombs.

The apsidal capitals of Saint Pierre are a very menagerie of such
strange demons--evil beasts grinning and mocking among the stocky
saints and angels who set forth, unconcerned by such hideous
propinquity, the story of the birth of Christ. The animals are much
more skilfully modelled than the angels, and at Chauvigny one slender
monster, with greyhound flanks, subhuman face, and long curved tail
ending in a grasping human hand, haunts the memory as an embodiment of
subtle malevolence.



II

POITIERS TO THE PYRENEES


The road from Poitiers to Angoulême carries one through a country
rolling and various in line--a country with a dash of Normandy in it,
but facing south instead of west.

The villages are fewer than in Normandy, and make less mark in the
landscape; but the way passes through two drowsy little towns, Civray
and Ruffec, each distinguished by the possession of an important church
of the typical Romanesque of Poitou. That at Civray, in particular,
is remarkable enough to form the object of a special pilgrimage,
and to find it precisely in one’s path seemed part of the general
brightness of the day. Here again are the sculptured archivolt and the
rich imagery of Poitiers--one strange mutilated figure of a headless
horseman dominating the front from the great arcade above the doorway,
as at the church of the Sainte Croix in Bordeaux; but the façade of
Civray is astonishingly topped by fifteenth-century machicolations,
which somehow, in spite of their later date, give it an air of greater
age, of reaching back to a wild warring past.

Angoulême, set on a promontory between Charente and Anguienne,
commands to the north, south and east a vast circuit of meadowy and
woody undulations. The interior of the town struck one as dull, and
without characteristic detail; but on the front of the twelfth-century
cathedral, perched near the ledge of the cliff above the Anguienne,
detail abounds as profusely as on the façade of Notre Dame at Poitiers.
It is, however, so much less subordinate to the general conception that
one remembers rather the garlanding of archivolts, the clustering of
figures in countless niches and arcades, than the fundamental lines
which should serve to bind them together; and the interior, roofed with
cupolas after the manner of Saint Hilaire of Poitiers, is singularly
stark and barren looking.

[Illustration: ANGOULÊME: FAÇADE OF THE CATHEDRAL]

But when one has paid due tribute to the cathedral one is called
on, from its doorway, to recognize Angoulême’s other striking
distinction: its splendid natural site, and the way in which art has
used and made the most of it. Starting from a long leafy _cours_ with
private hôtels, a great avenue curves about the whole length of the
walls, breaking midway into a terrace boldly hung above the valley,
and ending in another leafy _place_, beneath which the slope of the
hill has been skilfully transformed into a public garden. Angoulême
now thrives on the manufacture of paper, and may therefore conceivably
permit herself such civic adornments; but how of the many small
hill-towns of France--such as Laon or Thiers, for instance--which
apparently have only their past glory to subsist on, yet manage to lead
up the admiring pilgrim by way of these sweeping approaches, encircling
terraces and symmetrically planted esplanades? One can only salute once
again the invincible French passion for form and fitness, and conclude
that towns as well as nations somehow always manage to give themselves
what they regard as essential, and that happy is the race to whom these
things are the essentials.

On leaving Angoulême that afternoon we saw the first cypresses and
the first almond blossoms. We were in the south at last; not the hot
delicately pencilled Mediterranean south, which has always a hint of
the East in it, but the temperate Aquitanian _midi_ cooled by the
gulf of Gascony. As one nears Bordeaux the country grows less broken,
the horizon-line flatter; but there is one really noble impression,
when, from the bridge of Saint André de Cubzac, one looks out on the
lordly sweep of the Dordogne, just before it merges its waters with the
Garonne to form the great estuary of the Gironde. Soon after comes an
endless dusty faubourg, then the long stone bridge over the Garonne,
and the proud river-front of Bordeaux--a screen of eighteenth-century
buildings stretched along the crescent-shaped quay. Bordeaux, thus
approached, has indeed, as the guide-book says, _fort grand air_; and
again one returns thanks to the motor, which almost always, avoiding
the mean purlieus of the railway station, gives one these romantic or
stately first impressions.

[Illustration: THIERS: VIEW OF THE TOWN FROM THE PONT DE SEYCHALLES]

This river-front of Bordeaux is really little more than the
architectural screen, a street or two deep, of a bustling, bright but
featureless commercial town, which, from the Middle Ages to the
close of the eighteenth century, seems to have crowded all its history
along the curve of the Garonne. Even the early church of the Holy
Cross--contemporaneous with Notre Dame la Grande of Poitiers--lifts
its triple row of Romanesque arcades but a few yards from the river;
and close by is Saint Michel, a stately example of late Gothic, with
the unusual adjunct of a detached bell-tower, not set at an angle, in
Italian fashion, but facing the church squarely from a little green
enclosure across the street. But these vestiges of old Bordeaux,
in spite of their intrinsic interest, are, on the whole, less
characteristic, less personal, than the _mise-en-scène_ of its long
quay: a row of fine old hôtels with sculptured pediments and stately
doorways, broken midway by the symmetrical buildings of the Exchange
and the Custom House, and extending from the Arch of Triumph opposite
the Pont de Bordeaux to the great Place des Quinconces, with its
rostral columns and balustraded terrace above the river.

To the modern traveller there is food for thought in the fact that
Bordeaux owes this great decorative composition--in which should be
included the theatre unfolding its majestic peristyle at the head of
the Place de la Comédie--to the magnificent taste and free expenditure
of the Intendant Tourny, who ruled the province of Guyenne in the
eighteenth century. Except at such high moments of æsthetic sensibility
as produced the monuments of Greece and republican Italy all large
schemes of civic adornment have been due to the initiative of one man,
and executed without much regard to the rights of the tax-payer; and
should the citizen of a modern republic too rashly congratulate himself
on exemption from the pillage productive of such results, he might
with equal reason remark that the tribute lawfully extracted from him
sometimes seems to produce no results whatever.

[Illustration: BORDEAUX: CHURCH OF THE HOLY CROSS]

       *       *       *       *       *

On leaving Bordeaux we deserted the _route nationale_ along the flat
west bank of the Garonne, and recrossing the Pont de Bordeaux ran
south through the white-wine region between Garonne and Dordogne--that
charming strip of country which, because of the brackishness of the
river tides, goes by the unexpected name of Entredeux-Mers. For
several miles we skirted a line of white houses, half villa, half
château, set in well-kept gardens; then came vineyards, as exquisitely
kept, and packed into every cranny of the rocky _coteaux_, save where
here and there a little town broke the view of the river--chief among
them Langoiron, with its fine fortress-ruin, and Cadillac enclosed in
stout quadrangular walls.

The latter place has the interest of being one of those symmetrically
designed towns which, toward the close of the Middle Ages, were founded
throughout southwestern France to draw “back to the land” a population
depleted and demoralised by long years of warfare and barbarian
invasion. These curious made-to-order towns--_bastides_, or _villes
neuves_--were usually laid out on a rectilinear plan, with a town-hall
forming the centre of an arcaded market-place, to which four streets
led from gateways in the four walls. Among the most characteristic
examples are Aigues Mortes, which Saint Louis called into existence to
provide himself with a Mediterranean port, and Cordes, near Gaillac,
founded a little later by Count Raymond of Toulouse, and somewhat
ambitiously named by him after the city of Cordova.

At Cadillac the specific physiognomy of the mediæval _bastide_ is
overshadowed by the lofty proportions and high-pitched roof of the
château which a sixteenth-century Duke of Epernon planted in an
angle of the walls. The adjoining parish church--itself of no mean
dimensions--was once but the private chapel of these same dukes, who
have left such a large architectural impress on their small shabby
town; and one grieves to learn that the chief monument of their rule
has fallen to base uses, and been stripped of the fine interior
decorations which its majestic roof once sheltered.

       *       *       *       *       *

South-west of Cadillac the road passes through a vast stretch of
pine-forest with a dry aromatic undergrowth--an outskirt of the great
_landes_ that reach inward from the gulf of Gascony. On and on runs
the white shadow-barred highway, between ranges of red boles and
sun-flecked heathy clearings--and when, after long hours, one emerges
from the unwonted mystery and solitude of this piny desert into the
usual busy agricultural France, the land is breaking southward into
hilly waves, and beyond the hills are the Pyrenees.

Yet one’s first real sight of them--so masked are they by lesser
ranges--is got next day from the terrace at Pau, that astonishing
balcony hung above the great amphitheatre of southwestern France. Seen
thus, with the prosaic English-provincial-looking town at one’s back,
and the park-like green _coteaux_ intervening beyond the Gave, the
austere white peaks, seemingly afloat in heaven (for their base is
almost always lost in mist), have a disconcerting look of irrelevance,
of disproportion, of being subjected to a kind of indignity of
inspection, like caged carnivora in a zoo.

And Pau, on farther acquaintance, utterly refuses to be brought into
any sort of credible relation with its great southern horizon; conducts
itself, architecturally and socially, like a comfortable little spa in
a plain, and rises only by a great deal of hoisting on the part of the
imaginative sight-seer to the height of its own dapper brick castle,
which it has domesticated into an empty desultory museum, and tethered
down with a necklet of turf and flowers.

But Pau’s real purpose is to serve as the hub of a great wheel, of
which the spokes, made of smooth white roads, radiate away into every
fold and cleft of the country. As a centre for excursions there is
no place like it in France, because there is nothing in France that
quite matches the sweetness and diversity of the long Pyrenean border.
Nowhere else are the pastoral and sylvan so happily mated, nowhere the
villages so compact of thrift and romance, the foreground so sweet, the
distances so sublime and shining.

Whichever way one turns--down the winding southern valleys toward
Lourdes and Argelès, or to Oloron and the Eaux Chaudes; westward, over
low hills, to the old town of Orthez and the Salies de Béarn; or east,
again, to the plain of Tarbes in its great ring of snow-peaks--always
there is the same fulness of impressions, always the same brightness
and the same nobility.

For a culminating instance of these impressions one might choose, on
a spring afternoon, the run to Lourdes by the valley of the Gave and
Bétharram.

First rich meadows, hedgerows, village streets; then fields again and
hills; then the brown rush of the Gave between wooded banks; and,
where the river threads the arch of an ivied bridge, the turreted
monastery walls and pilgrimage church of Bétharram--a deserted
seventeenth-century Lourdes, giving one a hint of what the modern
sanctuary might have been had the millions spent on it been drawn from
the faithful when piety still walked with art.

Bétharram, since its devotees have forsaken it, is a quite negligible
“sight,” relegated to small type even in the copious Joanne; yet
in view of what is coming it is worth while to pause before its
half-Spanish, half-Venetian church front, and to obey the suave yet
noble gesture with which the Virgin above the doorway calls her
pilgrims in.

She has only a low brown church to show, with heavy stucco angels
spreading their gilded wings down a perspective of incense-fogged
baroque; but the image of it will come back when presently, standing
under the big dome of the Lourdes “Basilica,” one gives thanks that
modern piety chose to build its own shrine instead of laying hands on
an old one.

There are two Lourdes, the “grey” and the “white.” The former,
undescribed and unvisited, is simply one of the most picturesque and
feudal-looking hill villages in Europe. Planted on a steep rock at the
mouth of the valley, the mountains pressing it close to the west and
south, it opposes its unbroken walls and stern old keep to the other,
the “white” town sprawling on the river bank--the town of the Basilica,
the Rosary, the Grotto: a congeries of pietistic hotels, _pensions_,
pedlars’ booths and panoramas, where the Grand Hôtel du Casino or
du Palais adjoins the Pension de la Première Apparition, and the
blue-sashed Vierge de Lourdes on the threshold calls attention to the
electric light and _déjeuner par petites tables_ within.

[Illustration: BÉTHARRAM: THE BRIDGE]

Out of this vast sea of vulgarism--the more aggressive and intolerable
because its last waves break against one of the loveliest landscapes
of this lovely country--rises what the uninstructed tourist might
be pardoned for regarding as the casino of an eminently successful
watering-place--as the Grotto beneath, with its drinking-fountains,
baths, bottling-taps and _boutiques_, might stand for the “Source”
or “Brunnen” where the hypochondriac pays toll to Hygieia before
seeking relaxation in the gilded halls above. For the shrine of
Bernadette has long since been overlaid by the machinery of a vast
“business enterprise,” a scheme of life in which every heart-beat
is itemised, tariffed and exploited, so that even the invocations
encrusting by thousands the Basilica walls seem to record so many cases
of definite “give and take,” so many bargains struck with heaven--_en
souvenir de mon vœu, reconnaissance pour une guérison, souvenir d’une
prière exaucée_, and so on--and as one turns away from this monument of
a thriving industry one may be pardoned for remembering the plane-tree
by the Ilissus and another invocation:

“Ye gods, give me beauty in the inward soul; and may the inner and the
outer man be one.”

But beyond Lourdes is Argelès, and at the first turn of the road one
is again in the fresh Pyrenean country, among budding crops, sleek
fawn-coloured cattle, and the grave handsome peasantry who make
one feel that the devotional _ville d’eaux_ one has just left is a
mushroom growth quite unrelated to the life of industry to which these
agricultural landscapes testify.

There is always an added interest--architectural and racial--about
the border regions where the idiosyncrasies of one people “run,” as
it were, into those adjoining; and a key to the character of each is
given by noting precisely what traits have survived in transplantation.
The Pyreneans have a certain Spanish seriousness, but so tempered by
Gallic good-humour that their address recalls the perfectly mingled
courtesy and self-respect of the Tuscan peasant. One feels in it, at
any rate, the result of an old civilisation blent with independence and
simplicity of living; and these bold handsome men, straight of feature
and limb, seem the natural product of their rich hill-country, so
disciplined by industry, yet so romantically free.

[Illustration: ARGELÈS-GAZOST: THE OLD BRIDGE]

Argelès is a charming old hill-town, which has kept itself quite aloof
from the new watering-place of Gazost in the plain; but the real object
of the excursion lies higher up the valley, in a chestnut forest on
the slope of the mountains. Here the tiny village of Saint Savin
swarms bee-like about its great Romanesque church--a naked massive
structure, like the skeleton of some prehistoric animal half emerging
from the rock. Old as it is, it is rooted in remains of greater
antiquity--the fallen walls of an abbey of Charlemagne’s building,
itself raised, the legend runs, on the site of a Roman villa which once
served as the hermitage of Saint Savin, son of a Count of Barcelona.

It has been the fate of too many venerable architectural relics to
sacrifice their bloom of _vetusté_ to the scrupulous care which
makes them look like conscious cossetted old ladies, of whom their
admiring relatives say: “Should you ever suspect her age?”--and only
in such remote monuments as that of Saint Savin does one get the
sense of undisguised antiquity, of a long stolid existence exposed
to every elemental influence. The result is an impression of rugged,
taciturn strength, and of mysterious memories striking back, as in
the holy-water basin of the transept, and the uncouth capitals of the
chapter-house, to those dark days when Christian civilisation hung in
the balance, and the horn of Roland sounded down the pass.

But a mediæval church is always more or less in the order of nature:
there is something more incongruous about a mediæval watering-place.
Yet the Pyrenees abound in them; and at Cauterets, farther up the same
valley, the monks of this very monastery of Saint Savin maintained, in
the tenth century, “habitations to facilitate the use of the baths.”
Of the original Cauterets, however, little remains, and to get an
impression of an old _ville d’eaux_ one must turn westward from Pau,
and strike across the hills, by ways of exceeding beauty, to the
Salies de Béarn. The frequentation of these saline springs dates back
as far as the monkish charter of Cauterets; and the old town of the
Salies, with its incredibly picturesque half-timbered houses, its black
balconies and gables above the river, looks much as it must have when,
in 1587, a charter was drawn up for the regular “exploitation” of the
baths.

[Illustration: SALIES DE BÉARN: VIEW OF OLD TOWN]

Pushing still farther westward one meets the highway to Bayonne and
Biarritz, and may thence pass south by Saint Jean de Luz and Hendaye
to the Spanish border. But the spokes of the wheel radiate in so many
different directions and lead to scenes so extraordinarily varied--from
the savage gorge of the Eaux-Chaudes to the smiling vale of Saint
Jean Pied-de-Port, from the romantic pass of the Pied de Roland to
Fontarrabia perched like a painted Spanish Virgin on its rock
above the gulf of Gascony--that to do them any sort of justice the
comet-flight of the motor would have to be bound down to an orbit
between Bidassoa and Garonne.

       *       *       *       *       *

Familiarity cannot blunt the wonder of the climb from Pau to the crest
of the hills above Tarbes. Southward the Pyrenees unfold themselves in
a long line of snows, and ahead every turn of the road gives a fresh
glimpse of wood and valley, of thriving villages and farms, till the
last jut of the ridge shows Tarbes far off in the plain, with the dim
folds of the Cévennes clouding the eastern distance.

All along the northeastern skirt of the Pyrenees runs the same bright
and opulent country; and at the old market-town of Montrejeau, where
the Garonne cuts its way down the vale of Luchon, there is just such a
fortunate grouping of hill and river, and distant high-perched ruin,
as our grand-parents admired in landscapes of the romantic school.
It was our good luck to enter Montrejeau on Easter Monday, while the
market was going on, and the narrow streets were packed with mild
cream-coloured cattle and their lively blue-smocked drivers. Great
merriment and general good-humour marked our passage through the town
to the big inn with its open galleries and old-fashioned courtyard; and
here, the dining-room being as packed as the streets, our table was
laid in a sunny old walled garden full of spring flowers and clipped
yews.

It seemed impossible that any incident of the afternoon should be quite
at the height of this gay repast, consumed in fragrance and sunshine;
but we began to think differently when, an hour or two later, we took
the first curve of the long climb to Saint Bertrand de Comminges. This
atom of a town, hugging a steep wedge of rock at the mouth of the vale
of Luchon, was once--and for many centuries--a diocesan seat; and who,
by all the spirits of incongruousness, should one of its last bishops
be, but the uncle of that acute and lively Madame de Boigne whose
memoirs have recently shed such light on the last days of the Old
Régime?

By no effort of imagination can one project into the single
perpendicular street of Saint Bertrand, topped by its rugged Gothic
cathedral, the gallant figure of Monseigneur Dillon, one of those
philosophical prelates whom one instinctively places against the
_lambris dorés_ of an episcopal palace hung with Boucher tapestries.
But in truth the little town has too old and strange a history to be
conscious of so fugitive an incident of its past. For its foundations
were laid by the mountain tribes who harassed Pompey’s legions and were
driven back by him into the valley of the Garonne; and in due time
a great temple rose on what is now the rock of the cathedral. Walls
and ramparts presently enclosed it, and the passage of the Vandals
having swept the dwellers of the plain back into this impregnable
circuit, Comminges became an episcopal city when the Catholic Church
was organised in Gaul. Thereafter it underwent all the vicissitudes
of barbarian invasion, falling at last into such decay that for five
hundred years it is said to have been without inhabitants. Yet the
episcopal line was maintained without more than one long break, and
in the eleventh century the diocese woke to life at the call of its
saintly Bishop, Bertrand de l’Isle Jourdain. Saint Bertrand began the
cathedral and built about it the mediæval town which bears his name:
and two hundred years later another Bertrand de Comminges, raised
to the papacy as Clement V., but still mindful of the welfare of his
former diocese, completed the Romanesque pile by the addition of a vast
Gothic nave and choir.

It is the church of Clement V. that still crowns the rock of Comminges,
contrasting by its monumental proportions with the handful of houses
enclosed in the walls at its base. The inhabitants of Comminges
number at present but some five hundred, and the town subsists, the
guide-books tell one, only on its religious festivals, the fame of its
monuments, and the fidelity of a few “old families” who are kept there
_par le prestige des souvenirs_.

One wonders, climbing the steep street, which of its decrepit houses
are inhabited by these interesting devotees of the past. No life is
visible save that contributed by a few bleary old women squatted
under mouldering arches, and a fire-fly dance of children about the
stony square before the church; and the church itself seems withdrawn
immeasurably far into the past, sunk back upon dim ancient memories of
Gaul and Visigoth.

One gets an even intenser sense of these distances from the little
cloister wedged against the church-flank and overhanging the radiant
valley of the Garonne--a queer cramped _enceinte_, with squat arches
supported by monster-girdled capitals, and in one case by a strange
group of battered figures, supposedly the four Evangelists, one of
whom--the Saint John--is notable in Romanesque archæology for bearing
in his arms the limp lamb which is his attribute.

The effect of antiquity is enhanced, as at Saint Savin, by the
beneficent neglect which has allowed the exterior of the building
to take on all the scars and hues of age; so that one comes with a
start of surprise on the rich and carefully tended interior, where a
brilliant bloom of Renaissance decoration has overlaid the stout Gothic
framework.

This airy curtain, masking choir, rood-screen and organ-loft in a
lace-work of delicate yet hardy wood-carving, has kept, in the dry
Pyrenean air, all its sharpness of detail, acquiring only a lustre
of surface that gives it almost the texture of old bronze. It is
wonderfully free and fanciful, yet tempered by the southern sense of
form; subdued to the main lines of the composition, but breaking into
the liveliest ripples of leaf and flower, of bird and sprite and angel,
till its audacities culminate in the scaly undulations of the mermaids
on the terminal seats of the choir--creatures of bale and beauty, who
seem to have brought from across the Alps their pagan eyes and sidelong
Lombard smile.

[Illustration: ST. BERTRAND-DE-COMMINGES: PIER OF THE FOUR EVANGELISTS
IN THE CLOISTER]

The finger-tailed monster of Chauvigny, the plaintively real bat of the
choir-stall at Poitiers, and these siren evocations of a classic past
group themselves curiously in the mind as embodiments of successive
phases of human fancy, imaginative interpretations of life.



III

THE PYRENEES TO PROVENCE


As one turns north-eastward from the Pyrenees the bright abundant
landscape passes gradually into a flattish grey-and-drab country that
has ceased to be Aquitaine and is yet not Provence.

A dull region at best, this department of Haute Garonne grows
positively forbidding when the mistral rakes it, whitening the
vineyards and mulberry orchards, and bowing the shabby cypresses
against a confused grey sky; nor is the landscape redeemed by the
sprawling silhouette of Toulouse--a dingy wind-ridden city, stretched
wide on the flat banks of the Garonne, and hiding its two precious
buildings in a network of mean brick streets.

One might venture the general axiom that France has never wholly
understood the use of brick, and that where stone construction ceases
architectural beauty ceases with it. Saint Sernin, the great church
of Toulouse, is noble enough in line, and full of interest as marking
the culmination of French Romanesque; but compared with the brick
churches of northern Italy it seems struck with aridity, parched and
bleached as a skeleton in a desert: The Capitoul, with its frivolous
eighteenth-century front, has indeed more warmth and relief than any
other building in Toulouse; but meanly surrounded by shabby brick
houses, it seems to await in vain the development of ramps and terraces
that should lead up to its long bright façade.

As the motor enters the hill-country to the northeast of Toulouse
the land breaks away pleasantly toward the long blue line of the
Cévennes; and presently a deep cleft fringed with green reveals the
nearness of the Tarn--that strange river gnawing its way through cheesy
perpendicular banks.

[Illustration: ALBI: GENERAL VIEW OF THE CATHEDRAL]

Along these banks fantastic brick towns are precariously piled:
L’Isle-sur-Tarn, with an octagonal brick belfry, and Rabastens, raised
on a series of bold arcaded terraces, which may be viewed to advantage
from a suspension-bridge high above the river. Aside from its
exceptionally picturesque site, Rabastens is notable for a curious
brick church with fortified tower and much-restored fourteenth-century
frescoes clothing its interior like a dim richly woven tissue. But
beyond Rabastens lies Albi, and after a mid-day halt at Gaillac, most
desolate and dusty of towns, we pressed on again through the parched
country.

Albi stood out at length upon the sky--a glaring mass of houses stacked
high above the deep cleft of the Tarn. The surrounding landscape was
all dust and dazzle; the brick streets were funnels for the swooping
wind; and high up, against the blinding blue, rose the flanks of the
brick cathedral, like those of some hairless pink monster that had just
crawled up from the river to bask on the cliff. This first impression
of animal monstrosity--of an unwieldly antediluvian mass of flesh--is
not dispelled by a nearer approach. From whatever angle one views the
astounding building its uncouth shape and fleshlike tint produce the
effect of a living organism--high-backed, swollen-thighed, wallowing--a
giant Tarasque or other anomalous offspring of the Bestiary; and if
one rejects the animal analogy as too grotesque, to what else may one
conceivably compare it?

Among the fortified churches of southwestern France this strange
monument is the strangest as it is the most vast, and none of the
accepted architectural categories seems to fit its huge vaulted hall
buttressed with tall organ-pipe turrets, and terminating to the west in
a massive dungeon-like tower flanked by pepper-pot pinnacles.

The interior of the great secular-looking _salle_ is covered by an
unbroken expanse of mural painting, and encrusted, overgrown almost,
from the choir and ambulatory to the arches of the lateral chapels,
with a prodigious efflorescence of late Gothic wood-carving and
sculpture, half Spanish in its dusky grey-brown magnificence. But even
this excess of ecclesiastical ornament does not avail to Christianise
the church--there is a pagan, a Saracenic quality about it that seems
to overflow from its pinnacled flushed exterior.

[Illustration: ALBI: INTERIOR OF THE CATHEDRAL]

To reach Carcassonne from Albi one must cross the central mass of the
Cévennes. The way leads first, by hill and dale, through a wooded
northern-looking landscape, to the town of Castres, distinguished by a
charming _hôtel de ville_ with a box-planted garden said to have been
laid out by Lenôtre; and soon after Castres the “wild-ridged steeps”
break away in widening undulations as the road throws its loops about
the sides of the Montagne Noire--black hollows deepening dizzily
below, and long grey vistas unfolding between the crowded peaks.
Unhappily a _bourrasque_ enveloped us before we reached the top of the
pass, so that we lost all the beauty of the long southern descent to
Carcassonne, and were aware of it only as a distant tangle of lights in
the plain, toward which we groped painfully through wind and rain.

The rain persisted the next day; but perhaps it is a not undesirable
accompaniment to a first view of Carcassonne, since it eliminates that
tout-and-tourist element which has so possessed itself of the ancient
_cité_, restoring to it, under a grey blurred light, something of its
narrow huddled mediæval life.

He who has gone there with wrath in his heart against Viollet-le-Duc
may even, under these mitigating conditions, go so far as to think
that the universal restorer has for once been justified by his
results--that, granting in advance the possibility of innumerable
errors of detail, his brilliant hypothesis still produces a total
impression of reality. Perhaps, too, all the floating tags of literary
mediævalism--the irresistible “connotations” of keep and rampart and
portcullis--help out the illusion, animate the serried little burgh,
and people it with such figures as Dante walked among when Bellincion
Berti went girt with leather. At any rate, the impression is there--for
those who have the hardihood to take it--there all the more palpably
on a day of such unbroken rain, when even the official custodians hug
their stove, and a beneficent mist hides the stacks of post-cards and
souvenirs waylaying the traveller from every window.

[Illustration: NÎMES: THE BATHS OF DIANA PUBLIC GARDENS]

The weather, however, so beneficent at Carcassonne, proved an obstacle
to the seeing of Narbonne and Béziers, and drove us relentlessly before
it to Nîmes, where it gave us, the next morning, one of those brilliant
southern days that are born of the southern deluges. Here was Provence
at last--dry, clear-edged, classic--with a sky like blue marble, low
red hills tufted by olives, stony hollows with thin threads of stream,
and a sun that picked out in gold the pure curves of the Maison Carrée.

Among the Greek towns of the Mediterranean there is none as Greek--or,
to speak more precisely, as Græco-Roman--as Nîmes. No other city of old
Gaul seems to have put itself so completely in harmony with its rich
nucleus of “remains”--eliminating or omitting the monuments of other
periods, and content to group its later growth subserviently about the
temple and the amphitheatre. It was very well for Arles to make its
Romanesque venture, for Rheims to crown itself with a glory of Gothic;
but with the tranquil lines of the Maison Carrée and the Nymphæum,
the rhythmic spring of the arena arches, to act as centralising
influences--above all with the overwhelming grandeur of the Pont du
Gard as a background--how could Nîmes, so far more deeply pledged to
the past, do otherwise than constitute herself the guardian of great
memories? The Pont du Gard alone would be enough to relegate any
town to a state of ancillary subjection. Its nearness is as subduing
as that of a great mountain, and next to the Mont Ventoux it is the
sublimest object in Provence. The solitude of its site, and the austere
lines of the surrounding landscape, make it appear as much on the outer
edge of civilisation as when it was first planted there; and its long
defile of arches seems to be forever pushing on into the wilderness
with the tremendous tread of the Roman legions.

By one of the charming oppositions of French travel, one may return
from this classic pilgrimage through the mediæval town of Uzès; and,
as if such contrasts were not fruitful enough, may pause on the way
to smile at the fantastic château d’Angivilliers--a half-ruined
eighteenth-century “Folly” with an anachronistic medley of kiosks,
arcades, pagodas, a chapel like a Roman temple, and a ruined box-garden
haunted by peacocks.

[Illustration: CARCASSONNE: THE PORTE DE L’AUDE]

Uzès itself, a steep town clustered about the ducal keep of the
Crussols, has a stately terrace above the valley, and some fine
eighteenth-century houses, in shabby streets insufficiently swept; but
its chief feature is of course the castle which, planted protectingly
in the centre of the town, thrusts up its central dungeon over a
fine feudal jumble of subsidiary masonry.

From Nîmes to the Mediterranean the impressions are packed too thick.
First the Rhone, with the castles of Tarascon and Beaucaire taunting
each other across its yellow flood, Beaucaire from a steep cliff,
Tarascon from the very brink of the river; then, after a short flight
through olive-orchards and vineyards, the pretty leafy town of Saint
Remy on the skirts of the Alpilles; and a mile to the south of Saint
Remy, on a chalky ledge of the low mountain-chain, the two surviving
monuments of the Roman city of Glanum. They are set side by side,
the tomb and the triumphal arch, in a circular grassy space enclosed
with olive-orchards and backed by delicate fretted peaks: not another
vestige of Roman construction left to connect them with the past. Was
it, one wonders, their singular beauty that saved them, that held
even the Visigoths’ hands when they wiped out every other trace of
the populous city of stone-quarriers, with its aqueducts, walls and
temples? Certainly, seeing the two buildings thus isolated under the
radiant lonely sky, one is tempted to exclaim that they might well
have checked even barbarian violence, and that never again did the
stout Roman trunk throw out two such flowers of grace and lightness. It
is as though, from that packed Provençal soil, some dust of Greece had
passed into the Latin stem, clearing a little its thick sap; yet it is
just because the monuments remain so sturdily Roman that the grace and
the lightness count so much.

This Alpilles country between Rhone and Durance is itself the most
Grecian thing west of Greece: Provence of Provence in every line of its
bare sharp-cut heights, tufted with a spare classic growth of olive,
cistus and myrtle, it explains why the Greek colonist found himself at
home on these ultimate shores, and why the Roman conqueror bowed here
to Attic influences.

Pushing southeast from Saint Remy, one comes, through a broadening
landscape, to the old town of Salon, where Nostradamus is buried, and
thence, by a winding road among the hills, to the wide valley where
Aix-en-Provence lies encircled in mountains.

[Illustration: SAINT-REMY: THE MAUSOLEUM]

For a town so nobly seated it seems, at first approach, a little
commonplace and insignificant; the eye, lighting on it from the
heights, seeks a sky-line like that of Clermont or Périgueux. Aix,
in this respect, remains inadequate; yet presents itself to closer
inspection as a charming faded old place, tinged with legal and
academic memories, with a fine double row of balconied and sculptured
hôtels along its leafy _cours_, and a number of scattered treasures in
the folds of its crooked streets.

Among these treasures the two foremost--the picture of the _Buisson
Ardent_ in the cathedral, and the Gobelin tapestries in the adjoining
Archbishop’s palace--belong to such widely sundered schools that
they might almost be said to represent the extreme points within
which French art has vibrated. It is therefore the more interesting
to note that both are intrinsically and preëminently decorative in
quality--devotional triptych and frivolous tapestry obeying the same
law of rigorously balanced lines and colours. The great picture of the
Burning Bush is, with the exception of the Virgin of Moulins, perhaps
the finest flower of that early French school of painting which was so
little known or considered that, until the recent Paris exhibition of
“Primitives,” many of its masterpieces were complacently attributed to
Italian painters. Hanging midway down the nave, where a golden light
strikes it when the sacristan flings open the splendid carved doors of
the west front, the triptych of Nicholas Froment unfolds itself like a
great three-petalled flower, each leaf burning with a rich limpidity of
colour that overflows from the Rosa Mystica of the central panel to the
pale prayerful faces of the royal donators in the wings.

The cathedral has its tapestries also--a series from the Brussels
looms, attributed to Quentin Matsys, and covering the choir with
intricately composed scenes from the life of Christ, in which the
melancholy grey-green of autumn leaves is mingled with deep jewel-like
pools of colour. But these are accidental importations from another
world, whereas the famous Don Quixote series in the Archbishop’s palace
represents the culminating moment of French decorative art.

They strike one perhaps, first of all--these rosy _chatoyantes_
compositions, where ladies in loosened bodices gracefully prepare to
be “surprised”--as an instructive commentary on ecclesiastical manners
toward the close of the eighteenth century; then one passes on to
abstract enjoyment of their colour-scheme and balance of line, to a
delighted perception of the way in which they are kept from being
(as tapestries later became) mere imitations of painting, and remain
imprisoned--yet so free!--in that fanciful textile world which has its
own flora and fauna, its own laws of colour and perspective, and its
own more-than-Shakespearian anachronisms in costume and architecture.

From Aix to the Mediterranean the south-eastern highway passes through
a land of ever-increasing loveliness. East of Aix the bare-peaked
mountain of Sainte Victoire dominates the fertile valley for long
miles. Then the hermit-haunted range of the Sainte Baume unfolds its
wooded flanks to the south, the highway skirting them as it gradually
mounts to the plateau where the town of Saint Maximin in clusters about
its unfinished Dominican church--a remarkable example of northern
Gothic strayed into the classic confines of Provence.

Saint Maximin owes its existence--or that part of it contingent on
possessing so important a church--to the ownership of the bones of
Saint Mary Magdalen, whose supposed relics were formerly venerated in
the great Burgundian church of Vézelay, but in the thirteenth century
were officially identified among the treasures of the Provençal town.
As the penitent saint is supposed to have spent her last years in a
grotto on the heights of the Sainte Baume, it seems more fitting that
she should now rest at its foot than on the far-off rock of the Morvan;
and one is glad that the belief was early enough established to produce
the picturesque anomaly of this fine fragment of northern art planted
against the classic slopes of the Maritime Alps.

The great Gothic church was never finished, without or within; but in
the seventeenth century a renewal of devotion to Saint Mary Magdalen
caused the interior of the choir to be clothed with a magnificent
_revêtement_ of wood-carving in the shape of ninety-two choir-stalls,
recounting in their sculptured medallions the history of the Dominican
order, and leading up to a sumptuous Berniniesque high-altar, all
jasper, porphyry and shooting rays of gold.

[Illustration: ST. MAXIMIN: CHOIR STALLS IN THE CHURCH]

Saint Maximin, though lying so remotely among bare fields and barer
mountains, still shows, outside its church, some interesting traces
of former activity and importance. A stout old Dominican monastery
extends its long row of ogival windows near the church, and here and
there a vigorous bit of ancient masonry juts from the streets--notably
in the sprawling arcades of the Jewish quarter, and where certain
fragments of wall attest that the mountain village was once a strongly
defended mediæval town.

Beyond Saint Maximin the _route nationale_ bears away between the
mountains to Nice; but at Brignoles--a city of old renown, the
winter residence of the Counts of Provence--one may turn southward,
by Roquebrussanne and the Chartreuse of Montrieux (where Petrarch’s
brother was abbot), to the radiant valley of the Gapeau, where the
stream-side is already white with cherry-blossoms, and so at length
come out, at Hyères, on the full glory of the Mediterranean spring.

One’s first feeling is that nothing else matches it--that no work of
man, no accumulated appeal of history, can contend a moment against
this joy of the eye so prodigally poured out. The stretch of coast from
Toulon to Saint Tropez, so much less familiar to northern eyes than
the more eastern portion of the Riviera, has a peculiar nobility, a
Virgilian breadth of composition, in marked contrast to the red-rocked
precipitous landscape beyond. Looking out on it from the pine-woods of
Costebelle, above Hyères, one is beset by classic allusions, analogies
of the golden age--so divinely does the green plain open to the sea,
between mountain lines of such Attic purity.

After packed weeks of historic and archæological sensation this
surrender to the spell of the landscape tempts one to indefinite
idling. It is the season when, through the winter verdure of the
Riviera, spring breaks with a hundred tender tints--pale green of
crops, white snow of fruit-blossoms, and fire of scarlet tulips under
the grey smoke of olive-groves. From heights among the cork-trees
the little towns huddled about their feudal keeps blink across the
pine-forests at the dazzling blue-and-purple indentations of the
coast. And between the heights mild valleys widen down--valleys with
fields of roses, acres of budding vine, meadows sown with narcissus,
and cold streams rushing from the chestnut forests below the bald grey
peaks. Among the peaks are lonely hermitages, ruined remains of old
monastic settlements, Carthusian and Benedictine; but no great names
are attached to these fallen shrines, and the little towns below have
no connection with the main lines of history. It is all a tranquil
backwater, thick with local tradition, little floating fragments of
association and legend; but art and history seem to have held back from
it, as from some charmed Elysian region, too calm, too complete, to be
rudely touched to great issues.

       *       *       *       *       *

It was the mistral that drove us from this Eden, poisoning it with
dust and glare, and causing us to take refuge north of the sea-board
Alps. There, in a blander air and on a radiant morning, we left Aix
behind, and followed the Durance to Avignon. Approaching the papal
city from the east, one may get a memorable impression by following
the outer circuit of its walls to the Porte de l’Ouille, which opens
on the Place Crillon just below the great rock of the palace. Seen
thus from without, Avignon is like a toy model of a mediæval city;
and this impression of artificial completeness is renewed when, from
the rock-perched terrace below the palace, one looks out on the Rhone
valley and its enclosing amphitheatre of mountains. In the light
Provençal air, which gives a finely pencilled precision to the remotest
objects, the landscape has an extraordinarily topographical character,
an effect of presenting with a pre-Raphaëlite insistence on detail its
sharp-edged ruins, its turreted bridge, its little walled towns on
definite points of rock. The river winding through the foreground holds
its yellow curve between thin fringes of poplar and sharp calcareous
cliffs; and even the remoter hills have the clear silhouette of the
blue peaks in mediæval miniatures, the shoulder of the Mont Ventoux
rising above them to the north with the firmness of an antique marble.

[Illustration: TOULON: THE HOUSE OF PUGET]

This southern keenness of edge gives even to the Gothicism of the
piled-up church and palace an exotic, trans-Alpine quality, and makes
the long papal ownership of Avignon--lasting, it is well to remember,
till the general upheaval of 1790--a visible and intelligible fact.
Though the Popes of Avignon were Frenchmen, Avignon is unmistakably,
almost inexplicably, Italian: its Gothic vaguely suggests that of
the Ponte Sant’ Angelo, of the fortified arches and tombs of mediæval
Rome, and reconciles itself as easily to the florid façade of the
seventeenth-century Papal Mint in the square below as to the delicate
classic detail of the west door of the church.

Rome--but Imperial not Papal Rome--was still in the air as we left
Avignon and followed the Rhone valley northward to Orange. All this
part of France is thick with history, and in the ancient principality
of Orange the layers are piled so deep that one wonders to see so few
traces of successive dominations in the outward aspect of its capital.
Only the Rome of the Emperors has left a mark on the town which lived
with so vigorous and personal life from the days when it was a Gaulish
city and a trading station of Massaliote Greeks, and which, when it
grew too small for its adventurous brood, sent rulers to both shores
of the North Sea; and the fact that the theatre and the arch survive,
while the Orange of Carlovingian bishops and mediæval princes has been
quite wiped out, and even Maurice of Nassau’s great seventeenth-century
fortress razed to the ground--this permanence of the imperial
monuments, rising unshaken through the blown dust of nearly a thousand
years, gives a tangible image of the way in which the Roman spirit has
persisted through the fluctuations of history.

To learn that these very monuments have been turned to base uses by
barbarous prince-bishops--the arch converted into a fortified Château
de l’Arc, the theatre into an outwork of the main fortress--adds
impressiveness to their mutilated splendour, awing one with the image
of a whole reconstructed from such fragments.

[Illustration: ORANGE: THE ARCH OF MARIUS]

Among these, the theatre, now quite stripped of ornament, produces its
effect only by means of its size, and of the beautiful sweep of its
converging lines; but the great golden-brown arch--standing alone in a
wide grassy square--keeps on three sides a Corinthian mask of cornice
and column, and a rich embossing of fruit and flower-garlands, of
sirens, trophies and battle-scenes. All this decoration is typically
Roman--vigorously carved and somewhat indiscriminately applied. One
looks in vain for the sensitive ornament of the arch of Saint Remy, in
which Mérimée’s keen eye saw a germ of the coming Gothic: the sculpture
of Orange follows the conventional lines of its day, without showing
a hint of new forms. But that very absence of imaginative suggestion
makes it Roman and imperial to the core.

Ahead of us, all the way from Avignon to Orange, the Mont Ventoux
lifted into the pure light its denuded flanks and wrinkled
silvery-lilac summit. But at Orange we turned about its base, and bore
away north-eastward through a broken country rimmed with hills, passing
by Tulette, the seat of a Cluniac foundation--of which the great
Rovere, Julius II., was Prince and Prior--and by Valréas, which under
the Popes of Avignon became the capital of the Haut Comtat, the French
papal dominion in France.

Like too many old towns in this part of France, Valréas, once a
strongly fortified place, has suffered its castle to fall in ruins,
and swept away its towers and ramparts to make room for boulevards, as
though eager to efface all traces of its long crowded past. But one
such trace--nearer at hand and of more intimate connotations--remains
in the Hôtel de Simiane, now the _hôtel de ville_, but formerly the
house of that Marquis de Simiane who married Pauline de Grignan, the
grand-daughter of Madame de Sévigné.

This is the first reminder that we are in the Grignan country, and
that a turn of the road will presently bring us in full view of that
high-perched castle where the great lieutenant-governor of Provence,
Madame de Sévigné’s son-in-law, dispensed an almost royal hospitably
and ruled with more than royal arrogance.

[Illustration: GRIGNAN: GATE OF THE CASTLE]

The Comte de Grignan was counted a proud man, and there was much to
foster pride in the site and aspect of his ancestral castle--_ce
château royal de Grignan_. If Italy, and papal Italy, has been in
one’s mind at every turn of the way from Avignon to Tulette, it seems
actually to rise before one as the great ruin, springing suddenly from
its cliff in the plain, evokes a not too audacious comparison with the
rock of Caprarola. In France, at least, there is perhaps nothing as
suggestive of the fortified pleasure-houses of Italy as this gallant
castle on the summit of its rock, with the town clustering below, and
the vast terrace before it actually forming the roof of its church. And
the view from the terrace has the same illimitable sun-washed spaces,
flowing on every side into noble mountain-forms, from the Mont
Ventoux in the south to the range of the Ardèche in the west.

The ancient line of Adhémar, created Counts of Grignan by Henri II.,
had long been established on their rocky pedestal when they built
themselves, in the sixteenth century, the magnificent Renaissance
façade of which only the angle towers now subsist. Later still they
added the great gallery lined with full-length portraits of the
Adhémar, and under Louis XIV. Mansart built the so-called _Façade des
Prélats_, which, judging from its remains, did not yield in stateliness
to any of the earlier portions of the castle. From this side a fine
flight of double steps still descends to a garden set with statues and
fountains; and beyond it lies the vast stone terrace which forms the
roof of the collegial church, and is continued by a _chemin de ronde_
crowning the lofty ramparts on the summit of the rock.

This princely edifice remained in unaltered splendour for sixty years
after the house of Adhémar, in the person of Madame de Sévigné’s
grandson, had died out, ruined and diminished, in 1732. But when the
Revolution broke, old memories of the Comte de Grignan’s dealings with
his people--of unpaid debts, extorted loans, obscure lives devoured by
the greedy splendour on the rock--all these recollections, of which one
may read the record in various family memoirs, no doubt increased the
fury of the onslaught which left the palace of the Adhémar a blackened
ruin. If there are few spots in France where one more deeply resents
the senseless havoc of the Revolution, there are few where, on second
thoughts, one so distinctly understands what turned the cannon on the
castle.

The son-in-law of Madame de Sévigné was the most exorbitant as he
was the most distinguished of his race; and it was in him that the
splendour and disaster of the family culminated. But probably no
visions of future retribution disturbed the charming woman who spent--a
victim to her maternal passion--her last somewhat melancholy years in
the semi-regal isolation of Grignan. No one but La Bruyère seems, in
that day, to have noticed the “swarthy livid animal, crouched over
the soil, which he digs and turns with invincible obstinacy, but who,
when he rises to his feet, _shows a human countenance_”--certainly he
could not be visible, toiling so far below, from that proud terrace of
the Adhémar which makes the church its footstool. Least of all would
he be perceptible to the eyes--on other lines so discerning!--of the
lady whose gaze, when not on her daughter’s face, remained passionately
fixed on the barrier of northern mountains, and the highway that ran
through them to Paris. Paris! Grignan seems far enough from it even
now--what an Ultima Thule, a land of social night, it must have been
in the days when Madame de Sévigné’s heavy travelling carriage had to
bump over six hundred miles of rutty road to reach the doors of the
Hôtel Carnavalet! One had to suffer Grignan for one’s adored daughter’s
sake--to put up, as best one could, with the clumsy civilities of
the provincial nobility, and to console one’s self by deliciously
ridiculing the pretensions of Aix society--but it was an exile, after
all, and the ruined rooms of the castle, and the long circuit of the
_chemin de ronde_, are haunted by the wistful figure of the poor
lady who, though in autumn she could extol the “sugary white figs,
the Muscats golden as amber, the partridges flavoured with thyme and
marjoram, and all the scents of our sachets,” yet reached her highest
pitch of eloquence when, with stiff fingers and shuddering pen, she
pictured the unimaginable February cold, the “awful beauty of winter,”
the furious unchained Rhone, and “the mountains _charming in their
excess of horror_.”

[Illustration: VALENCE: THE CATHEDRAL]



IV

THE RHONE TO THE SEINE


From Montélimar to Lyons the “great north road” to Paris follows almost
continuously the east shore of the Rhone, looking across at the feudal
ruins that stud the opposite cliffs. The swift turns of the river, and
the fantastic outline of these castle-crowned rocks, behind which hang
the blue lines of the Cévennes, compose a foreground suggestive in its
wan colour and abrupt masses of the pictures of Patinier, the strange
Flemish painter whose ghostly calcareous landscapes are said to have
been the first in which scenery was painted for scenery’s sake. In all
the subtler elements of beauty, as well as in the power of historic
suggestion, this Rhone landscape far surpasses that of the Rhine; but,
like many of the most beautiful regions of France, it has a quality of
aloofness, of almost classic reserve, that defends it from the inroads
of the throng.

Midway to Lyons, Valence, the capital of Cæsar Borgia’s Valentinois,
rises above the river, confronted, on the opposite shore, by a wild
cliff bearing the ruined stronghold of Crussol, the cradle of the house
of Uzès. The compact little Romanesque cathedral of Saint Etienne,
scantily adorned by the light exterior arcade of its nave, is seated
on an open terrace overlooking the Rhone. As sober, but less mellow,
within, it offers--aside from the monument to Pius VI., who ended
his troubled days here--only the comparatively recondite interest of
typical constructive detail; and the impressionist sight-seer is likely
to wander out soon to the little square beyond the apse.

Here stands “Le Pendentif,” a curious little vaulted building of the
Renaissance, full of the note of character, though its original purpose
seems to be the subject of archæological debate. Like many buildings
of this part of the Rhone valley, it was unhappily constructed of a
stone on which the wear of the weather might suggest the literal action
of the “tooth of Time”--so scarred and gnawed is the whole charming
fabric. As to its original use, it appears to have been the mortuary
chapel of the noble family whose arms are discernible among the
incongruous animals of its decaying sculpture; for it is part of the
strangeness of the little monument that the spandrils of its elegant
classic order are inhabited by a rude Romanesque fauna which, combined
with the dusky hue and ravaged surface of the stone, confers on it, in
contrast to the rejuvenated church, a look of mysterious antiquity.

A few yards off, down a dark narrow street, the same savour of the
past is found in one of those minor relics which let the observer
so much deeper into by-gone institutions than the study of their
official monuments. This is simply an old private house of the early
Renaissance, with a narrow sculptured courtyard, a twisting staircase,
and vaulted stone passages and rooms of singularly robust construction.
It is still--appropriately enough--inhabited by _une très vieille dame_
who has receded so deeply into the farthest convolution of her stout
stone shell that her friendly portress had leave to conduct us from
basement to attic, giving us glimpses of dusky chambers with meagre
venerable furniture, and of kitchens and offices with stone floors,
scoured coppers and pots of herbs, all so saturated with the old
concentrated life of provincial France that it was like lifting to
one’s lips a glass of some ancient wine just at the turning-point of
its perfection.

[Illustration: VIENNE: GENERAL VIEW OF THE TOWN]

Not far from Valence, Tournon springs romantically from a cliff of the
west bank, surmounted by the ducal castle of Soubise; and the next
strong impression comes where Vienne, proudest of Rhone towns, lifts
its flamboyant cathedral on a vast flight of steps above the river.
The site of Vienne, and its long Roman past, prepare one for more
interest of detail than a closer inspection reveals. The Roman temple,
which may once have rivalled the Maison Carrée, was in the Middle Ages
(like the temple of Syracuse) incorporated in a Christian church, and
now, extricated lifeless from this fatal embrace, presents itself as
an impersonal block of masonry from which all significance of detail
is gone. The cathedral, too, has suffered in the same way, though
from other causes. In its early days it was savagely mutilated by the
Huguenots, and since then the weather, eating deeply into its friable
stone, has wrought such havoc with the finery and frippery of the
elaborate west front that the exterior attracts attention only as a
stately outline.

All the afternoon we had followed the Rhone under a cloudy sky; and
as we crossed the river at Vienne the clouds broke, and we pushed
northward through a deluge. Our day had been a long one, with its large
parenthesis at Grignan, and the rainy twilight soon closed in on us,
blotting out the last miles of the approach to Lyons. But even this
disappointment had its compensations, for in the darkness we took a
wrong turn, coming out on a high suburb of the west bank, with the
city outspread below in a wide network of lights against its holy hill
of Fourvière. Lyons passes, I believe, for the most prosaic of great
French towns; but no one can so think of it who descends on it thus
through the night, seeing its majestic bridges link quay to quay, and
the double sweep of the river reflecting the million lights of its
banks.

       *       *       *       *       *

It was still raining when we continued on our journey the next day; but
the clouds broke as we climbed the hill above Lyons, and we had some
fine backward glimpses of the Rhone before our road began to traverse
the dull plain of the Bresse.

    So rest, for ever rest, O princely pair!

If the lines have pursued one from childhood, the easiest--and, alas,
the most final!--way of laying their lovely spectre is to turn aside
from the road to Dijon and seek out the church of Brou. To do so, one
must journey for two or three hours across one of the flat stretches of
central France; and the first disillusionment comes when Brou itself
is found to be no more than a faubourg of the old capital of the
Bresse--the big, busy, cheese-making town of Bourg, sprawling loosely
among boundless pastures, and detaining one only by the graceful
exterior of its somewhat heterogeneous church.

A straight road runs thence through dusty outskirts to the shrine of
Margaret of Austria, and the heart of the sentimentalist sank as we
began to travel it. Here, indeed, close to the roadside, stood “the new
pile,” looking as new as it may have when, from her white palfrey, the
widowed Duchess watched her “Flemish carvers, Lombard gilders” at work;
looking, in fact, as scrubbed, scraped and soaped as if its renovation
were a feat daily performed by the “seven maids with seven mops” on
whose purifying powers the walrus so ingeniously speculated. Matthew
Arnold’s poem does not prepare the reader for the unnatural gloss which
makes the unhappy monument look like a celluloid toy. Perhaps when he
saw it the cleansing process had not begun--but did he ever really see
it? And if so, where did he see the

    Savoy mountain meadows,
    By the stream below the pines?

And how could he have pictured the Duchess Margaret as being “in the
mountains” while she was supervising the work? Or the “Alpine peasants”
as climbing “up to pray” at the completed shrine, or the priest
ascending to it by the “mountain-way” from the walled town “below the
pass”?

Is Bourg the walled town, and its dusty faubourg the pass? And shall
we, when we pass under the traceries of the central door, and stand
beneath the vaulting of the nave, hear overhead the “wind washing
through the mountain pines”? It will have to travel a long way to make
itself heard!

Poor Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, so maligned for her imaginative
pictures of Lovere and Lake Iseo, may surely be forgiven for having
gilded the lily, for adding an extra touch of romance where the
romantic already so abounded; but it is less easy to explain how the
poet of the church of Brou could evoke out of the dusty plain of the
Bresse his pine-woods, streams and mountains. Perhaps (the pilgrim
reflects) the explanation will be found within the church, and standing
in the magic light of the “vast western window” we too shall hear the
washing of the wind in the pines, and understand why it travelled so
far to reach the poet’s ear.

[Illustration: BROU: TOMB OF MARGARET OF AUSTRIA IN THE CHURCH]

In this hope we enter; but only to discover that inside also the
archæological mops have been at work, and that the elaborate lining
of the shrine is as scoured and shiny as its exterior. Well! let us
affront this last disenchantment--and the little additional one of
buying a ticket for the choir from a gold-braided custodian at a desk
in the nave--and closing our eyes to the secularised, museumised aspect
of the monument, try to open them to a vision of what it may have
been before it was turned into a show.

Alas! even this last effort--this _bon mouvement_ of the
imagination--fails to restore an atmosphere of poetry to the church of
Brou, to put it in any other light than that of a kind of superlative
“Albert Memorial,” in which regardlessness of cost has frankly
predominated over æsthetic considerations. Yet it is manifestly unfair
to charge the Duchess Margaret with the indiscrimination of the
_parvenu_. One should rather ascribe to special conditions of time and
place that stifling confusion of ornament, that air of being, as Bacon
puts it, so terribly “daubed with cost,” which is both the first effect
and the final outcome of an inspection of Brou. If Arnold gave the
rein to fancy in his _mise-en-scène_, he was quite exact in picturing
the conditions in which the monument was produced, and his enumeration
of the “Flemish carvers, Lombard gilders, German masons, smiths from
Spain” who collaborated in its making, reminds one that artistic
unity could hardly result from so random an association of talents.
It was characteristic of the time, of the last boiling-over of the
heterogeneous Gothic pot, that this strange fellowship was not felt to
be any obstacle to the production of a work of art. One sees the same
result in almost all the monuments of the period, especially where the
Spanish-Netherlands influence has added a last touch of profusion--and
confusion. How could an art so evolved issue in anything but a chaos of
overdone ornament? How could line survive in such a deluge of detail?
The church of Brou is simply the most distressing because the most
expensive product of the period. Expiring Gothic changed its outline
as often as the dying dolphin is supposed to change his colours--every
ornament suggests a convulsion in stone.

And on all this extravagance of design, which could be real redeemed
only by the lightest touch of the chisel, lies the heavy hand of the
Flemish sculptor. Is it possible that the same phase of artistic
feeling produced the three tombs of Brou and those of the Dukes of
Burgundy at Dijon? Certainly, at least, the same hand did not carve
them. At Brou the innumerable subordinate figures--angels, mourners
and the rest--are turned out with the unerring facility of the
pastry-cook’s art: they represent the highest achievement in sugar
and white of egg. At Dijon, on the contrary, each _pleureur_ in the
arcade beneath the tomb of Duke Philip is a living, sentient creature,
a mourner whose grief finds individual utterance. Is there anything
in plastic art that more vividly expresses the passionate mediæval
brooding over death? Each little cowled figure takes his grief, his
sense of the _néant_, in his own way. Some are wrung and bowed with
it. One prays. Another, a serene young man, walks apart with head bent
above his book--the page of a Stoic, one conjectures. And so each, in
his few inches of marble, and in the confinement of his cramped little
niche, typifies a special aspect of the sense of mortality--above all
of its loneliness, the way it must be borne without help.

       *       *       *       *       *

The thought came to one, the next day at Dijon, the more vividly by
contrast to the simpering sorrow of Brou. The tombs of the dukes of
Burgundy, so cruelly torn from the hallowed twilight of the Chartreuse,
and exposed to the cold illumination of museum windows, give one, even
in this impersonal light, a strong sense of personality. Even the
overladen detail of the period, the aimless striving of its frets and
finials, cannot obscure the serious purity of the central conception;
and one is led to the conclusion that a touch of free artistic emotion
will break through the strongest armour of stock formulas.

One sees them, of course, the ducal tombs, in a setting in a certain
sense their own, since this privileged city, in addition to its other
distinctions, has a mediæval palace for its museum, and the mailed
heels of the recumbent dukes may have rung on the stone flagging of the
Salle des Gardes where they now lie. But the great vaulted hall has
ceased to be a guard-room, as they have ceased to be its lords, and the
trail of label and number, of velvet cord and iron rail, is everywhere
in their democratised palace. It is noteworthy, therefore, that, as the
tombs have retained so much of their commemorative value, so the palace
itself has yielded as little as might be of its private character to
the encroachments of publicity: appearing almost, as one wanders from
one bright room to another, like the house of a great collector who
still lives among his treasures.

[Illustration: DIJON: MOURNERS ON THE TOMB OF JEAN SANS PEUR]

This felicitous impression is partly due to the beauty of the old
building, and partly also to the fact that it houses a number of small
collections, the spoils of local dilettanti, each kept together,
however diversified its elements, so that many of the rooms exhibit a
charming habitable mingling of old furniture, old porcelain and the
small unobtrusive pictures that are painted to be lived with, not
glanced up at from a catalogue.

The impression of happy coincidences, of really providential accidents,
which gives such life to the bright varied museum, persists and deepens
as one passes from it into the town--the astonishing town which seems
to sum up in itself almost every phase of French art and history. Even
the deep soil of France has hardly another spot where the past grows so
thick and so vigorously, where the ancient growths lift such hale heads
to the sunlight. The continuity of life at Dijon is as striking as its
diversity and its individuality. Old Dijon is not an archipelago of
relics in a sea of modern houses: it is like a vascular system, binding
the place together in its network of warm veins, and seeming, not to be
kept alive, but to be keeping life in the city.

It is to this vivid synthesis of the past that one reverts from even
the strongest single impressions--from the civic sumptuousness of the
Palais de Justice, the elegance of the Hôtel de Vogué, the mysterious
symbolism of the jutting row of gargoyles on the west front of Notre
Dame--suffering them to merge themselves, these and many more, into
a crowded splendid tapestry, the mere background of the old city’s
continuous drama of ducal, Imperial, parliamentary life.

The same impression of richness, of deep assimilated experience,
accompanies one on the way north through the Burgundian
province--giving to the trivial motorist, the mere snarer of haphazard
impressions, so annihilating a sense of his inability to render even
a superficial account of what he sees, and _feels beneath the thing
seen_, that there comes a moment when he is tempted to take refuge
in reporting the homely luxury, of the inns--though even here the
abundance of matter becomes almost as difficult to deal with.

It is for this reason, perhaps, that after a morning among the hills
and valleys of the Morvan, in sight, almost continuously, of that
astonishing Burgundian canal, with its long lines of symmetrical
poplars, its massive masonry, its charming lock-houses, all repeating
themselves like successive states of a precious etching--that after
such a morning I seek, and seem to find, its culminating astonishment
in the luncheon which crowned it in the grimy dining-room of the
_auberge_ at Précy-sous-Thil. But was it an _auberge_, even, and not
rather a _gargote_, this sandy onion-scented “public,” with waggoners
and soldiers grouped cheerfully about their _petit vin bleu_, while a
flushed hand-maid, in repeated dashes from the kitchen, laid before us
a succession of the most sophisticated dishes--the tenderest filet, the
airiest _pommes soufflées_, the plumpest artichokes that ever bloomed
on the buffet of a Parisian restaurant? It corresponded, at any rate,
to the kind of place where, in any Anglo-Saxon country, one would have
found the company as prohibitory as the food, and each equally a reason
for fleeing as soon as possible from the other.

So it is that Précy-sous-Thil may stand as a modest symbol of the
excessive amenity of this mellowest of French civilisations--the more
memorably to one party of hungry travellers because it formed, at the
same time, the final stage of their pilgrimage to Vézelay.

That thought, indeed, distracted us from the full enjoyment of the
filet, and tore us from the fragrant coffee that our panting waitress
carried after us to the motor’s edge; for more than half the short
April day was over, and we had still two hours of steep hill and vale
between ourselves and Vézelay.

The remainder of the way carried us through a region so romantically
broken, so studded with sturdy old villages perched on high ledges or
lodged in narrow defiles, that but for the expectation before us every
mile of the way would have left an individual impression. But on the
road to Vézelay what can one see but Vézelay? Nothing, certainly, less
challenging to the attention than the loftily seated town of Avallon
which, midway of our journey, caught and detained us for a wondrous
hour.

[Illustration: AVALLON: GENERAL VIEW OF THE TOWN]

The strain of our time-limit, and the manifold charms of the old town,
so finely planted above the gorge of the Cousin, had nearly caused us
to defer Vézelay, and end our day’s journey at the Hôtel du Chapeau
Rouge. But in the mild air, and on the extreme verge of the bright
sky, there was a threat of rain, and the longing to see the great
Benedictine abbey against such a sunset as the afternoon promised was
even stronger than the spell of Avallon. We carried away therefore
(with the fixed intention of returning) only the general impression of
a walled town set against a striking background of cliff and woodland,
and one small vivid vignette of a deserted square where aged houses of
incredible picturesqueness grouped themselves at scenic angles about
the sculptured front of the church of Saint Lazare.

From Avallon to Vézelay the road winds to the west, between the leafy
banks of the Cousin, through the town of Pontaubert, with its ancient
church of the Templars, past the bridge of the Cure, and out at last
into the valley dominated by the conical hill of Vézelay. All day the
vision of the Benedictine church had hung before us beyond each bend of
the road; and when at length we saw its mighty buttresses and towers
clenched in the rock, above the roofs and walls of the abbatial town,
we felt the impact of a great sensation--for the reality was nobler
than the vision.

The mere sight of Vézelay from the valley--quite apart from the rush
of associations it sets free--produces the immediate effect of one of
those perfect achievements in which art and nature interpret and fulfil
each other. The church stands just where such a building should stand,
and looks as a building should look to be worthy of such a site. The
landscape about it has the mingled serenity and ruggedness which its
own lines express, and its outline grows out of the hill-top without a
break between the structural harmony of the two.

[Illustration: VÉZELAY: NARTHEX OF THE CHURCH OF THE MADELEINE]

Before mounting up to compare the detailed impression with the first
effect, one is detained by the village of Saint Père (Pierre) sous
Vézelay, which lies just at the foot of the road leading up to the
abbey. Here, from a heap of sordid houses, and among stifling barnyard
exhalations, rises the sweet worn old church of Saint Pierre, younger
in date than the abbey church above, but stained and seamed by time.
From the stone embroideries of its triple porch and its graceful
fantastic narthex, it might pass, at first glance, for a more than
usually temperate specimen of flamboyant Gothic; but if one backs away
far enough to take in its whole outline, the upper façade and the
tower reveal themselves as an exquisite instance of thirteenth-century
transition. The tower, in particular, with its light ranges or arcades,
and the slender trumpeting angels that so surprisingly buttress its
angles, seems, as an observant traveller has already noted, more
Italian than Burgundian--though to find its match in Italy one would
have to seek, not among actual church-towers, but in the backgrounds of
early Tuscan pictures, where, against a sky of gold-leaf, such heralds
sound their call from the thatch of the manger.

After the mystical vision of the bell-tower of Saint Père it is almost
a drop back to prose to climb the hill to Vézelay and stand before
the church of the Magdelen--or rather it is like turning from the
raptures of Joachim of Flora or Hugo of Saint Victor to the close-knit
dialectic of Saint Thomas Aquinas. This vast creation of mediæval faith
might indeed be likened to the great doctrinal system out of which it
grew--such a strong, tight, complex structure, so studied, balanced
and mathematically exact it seems.

It has seen, the great church, in its well-nigh thousand years of
existence, sights so splendid and memorable that it seems at first a
mere background for its memories--for the figures of Saint Bernard and
Becket, of Philip Augustus and Cœur de Lion, with their interminable
train of clerical and secular dignitaries, monks, nobles, doctors of
the Church, and all the wild impassioned rout of the second and third
Crusades. To have seen so much, and now to stand so far apart from
life! One reflects on the happier fate of those other great churches of
lay growth, the French cathedrals, whose hearts beat warm for so many
centuries, through so many social and political alternations.

The situation of the church of Vézelay typifies this deeper solitude.
It stands alone on the crest of the hill, divided from the town
below by a wide stony square. Behind the apse, where the monastic
buildings lay, a shady grassy slope simulates the privacy of an
English close--and on all sides are the blue distances of the Morvan.
This loftiness and detachment of site give a peculiar majesty to
the building, and conduce no doubt to the impression that in all
church architecture there is nothing quite like it, nothing in which
the passive strength of the elder style so imperceptibly blends with
the springing grace of the new. The latter meets one first, in the
two-storied narthex, a church in itself, which precedes the magnificent
round-arched portals of the inner building. It is from the threshold of
this narthex that, looking down its lofty vista, and through the triple
doorways to the vast and stern perspective of the Romanesque nave, one
gets the keenest impression of the way in which, in this incomparable
building, the two styles have been wrought into an accord that shows
their essential continuity. In the nave itself, with the doors of the
narthex closed, another, subtler impression awaits one; for here one
seems to surprise the actual moment of transition, to see, as nowhere
else, the _folded wings of the Gothic_ stirring under the older forms.

More even than its rich mysterious sculptures, far more than its mere
pride of size and majesty, does this undefinable _fremissement_ of the
old static Romanesque lines remain with one as the specific note of
Vézelay: giving it, in spite of its age-long desertion, in spite of
the dead and staring look produced by indiscriminate restoration, an
inner thrill of vitality, the promise of “strange futures beautiful and
young,” such as the greatest art alone possesses.

The long spring sunset filled the sky when we turned from Vézelay and
began to wind through the valley of the Cure to Auxerre. The day had
been too rich in impressions to leave space for more than a deep sense
of changing loveliness as we followed the curves of the river through
poplar-planted meadows, by white chalk-cliffs and villages hanging on
the heights. But among these fugitive impressions is the vivid memory
of a white railway viaduct, so lightly yet securely flung across the
valley that in the golden blur of sunset it suggested one of Turner’s
dream-bridges spanning a vale of Tempe: a notable instance of the
almost invariable art with which, in French engineering, the arch is
still employed. After that the way grew indistinct, and night had
fallen when we entered Auxerre--feeling our way through a dimly lit
suburb, seeing the lights of the town multiplied in the quiet waters of
the Yonne, and reaching it at last by a bridge that led straight to
the steep central street.

       *       *       *       *       *

Auxerre, the next day--even through the blinding rain which so
punctually confirmed our forebodings--revealed itself as one of those
close-knit, individual old French towns that are as expressive, as full
of vivacity and character, as certain French faces. Finely massed above
the river, in a pile culminating with the towers of the cathedral and
the detached shaft of Saint Jean, it confirms, and indeed exceeds, on
a nearer view, the promise of its distant aspect. A town which has had
the good fortune to preserve its walls and one or two of its fortified
gates, has always--and more especially if seated on a river--the
more obvious opportunities for picturesqueness; and at Auxerre the
narrow streets rising from the quay to the central group of buildings
contribute many isolated effects--carved door, steep gable or opportune
angle-turret--to the general distinction of the scene.

The cathedral itself is the heart of the charming old place--so rich in
tone, so impressive in outline, so profusely yet delicately adorned,
it rose at the end of the long market-square, shedding on it, even
through the grey sheets of rain, the warmth of its high tawny masses.
The design of the western front is so full and harmonious that it
effaces from memory the less salient impression of the interior. Under
a more favourable light, which would have brought out the colours of
the rich clerestory glass, and the modelling of shafts and vaulting, it
would have seemed, no doubt, less austere, more familiarly beautiful;
but veiled and darkened by rain-clouds it offered, instead of colour
and detail, only an unfolding of cavernous arches fading into the deep
shades of the sanctuary.

The adjoining Bishop’s palace, with its rugged Romanesque arcades
planted on a bit of Gallo-Roman city wall, and the interesting fragment
of the church of Saint Germain, beside the hospital, are among the
other notable monuments of Auxerre; but these too, masked by the
incessant downpour, remained in memory as mere vague masses of dripping
masonry, pressed upon by a low black sky.

The rain pursued us northward from Auxerre along the valley of the
Yonne, lifting a little toward noon to leave the landscape under
that grey-green blur through which the French _paysagistes_ have most
persistently seen it. Joigny, with this light at its softest, seemed,
even after Auxerre, one of the most individual of ancient French
towns: its long and stately quay, closed by a fine gate at each end of
the town, giving it in especial a quite personal character, and one
which presented itself as a singularly happy solution of the problem
of linking a town to its river. Above the quay the steep streets gave
many glimpses of mediæval picturesqueness, tucked away at almost
inaccessible angles; but the rain closed in on them, and drove us on
reluctantly to Sens.

Here the deluge hung a still denser curtain between us and the
amenities of this singularly charming town. Sens, instead of being,
like Joigny, packed tight between river and cliff, spreads out with
relative amplitude between Roman ramparts transformed into shady
promenades; and about midway of the town, at the end of a long
market-place like that of Auxerre, the cathedral rears itself in
such nobility and strength of line that one instantly revises one’s
classification of the great French churches to make room for this one
near the top.

Its beauties develop and multiply on a nearer view, and its kinship
with Canterbury makes it, to those under the spell of that noblest of
English choirs, of peculiar architectural interest. But when one has
done full justice to the long unfolding of the nave, to the delicate
pallour of Cousin’s glass, and to the associations attached to the
“altar of Becket” behind the choir, one returns finally to the external
composition of the apsidal chapels as the most memorable and perfect
thing at Sens. The development of the _chevet_, which Romanesque
architecture bequeathed to Gothic, is perhaps the happiest product of
the latter growth on French soil; and after studying so complex an
example of its possibilities as the apse of Sens presents, one feels
anew what English Gothic lost in committing itself to the square east
end.

[Illustration: SENS: APSE OF THE CATHEDRAL]

Of great historic interest is the so-called _Officialité_ which
adjoins the cathedral--a kind of diocesan tribunal built under Louis
IX.; but its pointed windows and floriated niches have been so
liberally restored that it has the too Gothic look of a mediæval
stage-setting. Sens has many other treasures, not only in its unusually
rich collection of church relics and tapestries, but among the
fragments of architecture distributed through its streets; and in the
eighteenth century gates of the archiepiscopal palace it can show a
specimen of wrought-iron work probably not to be matched short of Jean
Lamour’s gates at Nancy.

One of its most coveted possessions-Jean Cousin’s famous picture of
the _Eva prima Pandora_--has long been jealously secluded by its
present owner; and one wonders for what motive the inveterate French
hospitality to lovers of art has been here so churlishly reversed. The
curious mystical interest of the work, and its value as a link in the
history of French painting, make it, one may say, almost a _monument
historique_, a part of the national heritage; and perhaps the very
sense of its potential service to art gives a perverse savour to its
possessor’s peculiar mode of enjoying it.

From Sens to Fontainebleau the road follows the valley of the Yonne
through a tranquil landscape with level meadows and knots of slender
trees along the river, till the border of the forest is reached, and a
long green alley takes one straight to the granite cross on the edge of
the town. Toward afternoon the rain turned to a quiet drizzle, of the
kind that becomes the soft French landscape as a glass becomes certain
pictures; and through it we glided on, past the mossy walls of great
estates, past low-lying châteaux, green _pièces d’eau_, mid the long
grassy vistas that are cut in every direction through the forests about
Melun. This district of big “shootings” and carefully tended preserves
extends almost to the outer ring of environs. Beyond them Paris itself
soon rose smokily through the rain, and a succession of long straight
avenues, as carefully planted as if they had been the main arteries of
a fashionable suburb, led us thence to the Porte de Choisy.

To be back in the roar of traffic, to feel the terrific pressure of
those miles of converging masonry, gave us, after weeks of free air
and unbounded landscape, a sense of congestion that made the crowded
streets seem lowering and dangerous; but as we neared the river, and
saw before us the curves of the lifted domes, the grey strength of the
bridges, and all the amazing symmetry and elegance of what in other
cities is mean and huddled and confused, the touch of another beauty
fell on us--the spell of “_les seuils sacrés, la Seine qui coule_.”



PART III

A FLIGHT TO THE NORTH-EAST


There are several ways of leaving Paris by motor without touching even
the fringe of what, were it like other cities, would be called its
slums. Going, for instance, southward or south-westward, one may emerge
from the alleys of the Bois near the Pont de Suresnes and, crossing the
river, pass through the park of Saint Cloud to Versailles, or through
the suburbs of Rueil and Le Vésinet to the forest of Saint Germain.

These miraculous escapes from the toils of a great city give one a
dearer impression of the breadth with which it is planned, and of the
civic order and elegance pervading its whole system; yet for that very
reason there is perhaps more interest in a slow progress through one
of the great industrial quarters such as must be crossed to reach the
country lying to the northeast of Paris.

To start on a bright spring morning from the Place du Palais
Bourbon, and follow the tide of traffic along the quays of the left
bank, passing the splendid masses of the Louvre and Notre Dame,
the Conciergerie and the Sainte Chapelle; to skirt the blossoming
borders of the Jardin des Plantes, and cross the Seine at the Pont
d’Austerlitz, getting a long glimpse down its silver reaches till they
divide to envelope the Cité; and then to enter by the Boulevard Diderot
on the long stretch of the Avenue Daumesnil, which leads straight to
the Porte Dorée of Vincennes--to follow this route at the leisurely
pace necessitated by the dense flow of traffic, is to get a memorable
idea of the large way in which Paris deals with some of her municipal
problems.

The Avenue Daumesnil, in particular, with its interminable warehouses
and cheap shops and _guinguettes_, would anywhere else be the prey of
grime and sordidness. Instead, it is spacious, clean, and prosaic only
by contrast to the elegance of the thoroughfares preceding it; and at
the Porte Dorée it gives one over to the charming alleys of a park
as well-tended and far more beautiful than the Bois de Boulogne--a
park offering the luxury of its romantic lawns and lakes for the sole
delectation of the packed industrial quarters that surround it.

The woods of this wonderful Bois de Vincennes are real woods, full of
blue-bells and lilies of the valley; and as one flies through them
in the freshness of the May morning, Paris seems already far behind,
a mere fading streak of factory-smoke on the horizon. One loses all
thought of it when, beyond Vincennes, the road crosses the Marne at
Joinville-sur-Pont. Thence it passes through a succession of bright
semi-suburban villages, with glimpses, here and there, of low white
châteaux or of little grey churches behind rows of clipped horn-beam;
climbing at length into an open hilly country, through which it follows
the windings of the Marne to Meaux.

Bossuet’s diocesan seat is a town of somewhat dull exterior, with
a Gothic cathedral which has suffered cruelly at the hands of the
reformers; for, by an odd turn of fate, before becoming the eyrie
of the “Eagle,” it was one of the principal centres of Huguenot
activity--an activity deplorably commemorated in the ravaged exterior
of the church.

From Meaux to Rheims the country grows in charm, with a slightly
English quality in its rolling spaces and rounded clumps of trees;
but nothing could be more un-English than the grey-white villages,
than the stony squares bordered by clipped horn-beams, the granite
market-crosses, the round-apsed churches with their pointed bell-towers.

One of these villages, Braisne, stands out in memory by virtue of its
very unusual church. This tall narrow structure, with its curious
western front, so oddly buttressed and tapering, and rising alone and
fragmentary among the orchards and kitchen-gardens of a silent shrunken
hamlet, is the pathetic survival of a powerful abbey, once dominating
its surroundings, but now existing only as the parish church of the
knot of sleepy houses about it.

A stranger and less explicable vestige of the past is found not far
off in the curious walled village of Bazoches, which, though lying in
the plain, must have been a small feudal domain, since it still shows
its stout mediæval defences and half-fallen gate-towers tufted with
wallflowers and wild shrubs. The distinguishing fact about Bazoches is
that it is not a dwindled town, with desert spaces between the walls
and a surviving nucleus of houses: its girdle of stone fits as closely
as a finger-ring, and whatever were its past glories they must have
been contained in the same small compass that suffices it to-day.

Beyond Braisne the country is less hilly, the pastures are replaced by
vineyards, and the road runs across a wide plain to Rheims. The extent
of the town, and its modern manufacturing outskirts, make its distant
silhouette less characteristic than that of Bourges or Chartres, which
are still so subordinated to the central mass of their cathedrals. At
Rheims the cathedral comes on one unexpectedly, in the centre of the
town; but once seen it enters into the imagination, less startlingly
but perhaps more completely, more pervasively, than any other of the
great Gothic monuments of France. This sense of being possessed by
it, subdued to it, is perhaps partly due--at least in the case of the
simple tourist--to the happy, the unparalleled fact, that the inn at
Rheims stands immediately opposite the cathedral--so that, admitted at
once to full communion with its incomparable west front, one returns,
after each excursion, to renew and deepen the relation, to become
reabsorbed in it without any conscious effort of attention.

There are two ways of feeling those arts--such as sculpture, painting
and architecture--which appeal first to the eye: the technical, and
what must perhaps be called the sentimental way. The specialist does
not recognise the validity of the latter criterion, and derision is
always busy with the uncritical judgments of those who have ventured
to interpret in terms of another art the great plastic achievements.
The man, in short, who measures the beauty of a cathedral not by its
structural detail consciously analysed, but by its total effect in
indirectly stimulating his sensations, in setting up a movement of
associated ideas, is classed--and who shall say unjustly?--as no better
than the reader who should pretend to rejoice in the music of Lycidas
without understanding the meaning of its words. There is hardly a
way of controverting the axiom that thought and its formulation are
indivisible, or the deduction that, therefore, the only critic capable
of appreciating the beauty of a great work of architecture is he who
can resolve it into its component parts, understand the relation
they bear to each other, and not only reconstruct them mentally, but
conceive of them in a different relation, and visualise the total
result of such modifications.

Assuredly--yet in those arts that lie between the bounds of thought and
sense, and leaning distinctly toward the latter, is there not room for
another, a lesser yet legitimate order of appreciation--for the kind of
confused atavistic enjoyment that is made up of historical association,
of a sense of mass and harmony, of the relation of the building to the
sky above it, to the lights and shadows it creates about it--deeper
than all, of a blind sense in the blood of its old racial power, the
things it meant to far-off minds of which ours are the oft-dissolved
and reconstituted fragments? Such enjoyment, to be of any value even
to the mind that feels it, must be based indeed on an approximate
acquaintance with the conditions producing the building, the structural
theories that led up to it, their meaning, their evolution, their
relation to the moral and mental growth of the builders--indeed, it
may be affirmed that this amount of familiarity with the past is
necessary to any genuine æsthetic enjoyment. But even this leaves the
enjoyment under the slur of being merely “amateurish,” and therefore
in need of a somewhat courageous defence by those who, unequipped for
technical verdicts, have yet found a more than transient satisfaction
in impressions of this mixed and nebulous order.

Such a defence is furnished, to a degree elsewhere unmatched, by the
exceptional closeness of intercourse to which propinquity admits the
traveller at Rheims. Here is the great Presence on one’s threshold--in
one’s window: surprised at dawn in the mystery of its re-birth
from darkness; contemplated at mid-day in the distinctness of its
accumulated detail, its complex ritual of stone; absorbed into the
mind, into the heart, again at darkness--felt lastly and most deeply
under the midnight sky, as a mystery of harmony and order no less
secret and majestic than the curves of the stars in their orbits.

Such pleasures, at any rate, whatever their value as contributions
to special lines of knowledge, enrich the æsthetic consciousness,
prepare it for fresh and perhaps more definite impressions, enlarge
its sense of the underlying relation between art and life, between all
the manifold and contradictory expressions of human energy, and leave
it thus more prepared to defend its own attitude, to see how, in one
sense--a sense not excluding, but in a way enveloping and fertilising
all the specialised forms of technical competence--_Gefühl ist alles_.

       *       *       *       *       *

It is one of the wonders of this rich northeastern district that
the traveller may pass, in a few hours, and through a region full
of minor interest, to another great manifestation of mediæval
strength: the fortress of Coucy. Two such contrasting specimens of the
vigour--individual and collective--of that tremendous age are hardly
elsewhere, in France, to be found in such close neighbourhood; and it
adds to the interest of both to know that Coucy was a fief of Rheims,
bestowed by its Archbishop on a knight who had distinguished himself
in the First Crusade. It was a great-grandson of this Enguerrand de
Boves who built the central keep and the walls; but the castle was
farther enlarged and adorned when, at the beginning of the fifteenth
century, it passed into the possession of Louis d’Orléans, the brother
of Charles VI.

It is doubly interesting to see Coucy after Carcassonne, because
the two fortresses present the opposite extremes of feudal secular
architecture, Carcassonne being the chief surviving example of a
large walled town with a comparatively small central castle, while
at Coucy the castle is the predominating feature, both in size and
site, and the town no more than a handful of houses within the outer
circuit of its defences. Both strongholds are of course situated on
steep heights, and that of Coucy, though it rises from slopes clad in
foliage, and therefore less stern of outline than the dry southern rock
of Carcassonne, stands no less superbly than its rival. In fact there
is perhaps no single point from which Carcassonne produces quite such
an effect of concentrated power as the keep and castle-towers of Coucy
squaring themselves on their western ridge. Yet such comparisons are
unprofitable, because the two fortresses were designed for purposes
so different, and under such different conditions, that the one is
necessarily most vigorous where the other had the least need for a
display of strength.

Coucy, in its present fallen state, gains incalculably from the charm
of its surroundings--the lovely country enfolding it in woods and
streams, the shaded walks beneath its ivy-hung ramparts, and above all
the distinct and exquisite physiognomy of the tiny old town which these
ramparts enclose. The contrast between the humble yet stout old stone
houses ranged, as it were, below the salt, and the castle throned on
its dais of rock at one end of the enclosure, seems to sum up the whole
social system of the Middle Ages as luminously and concisely as Taine’s
famous category. Coucy has the extraordinary archæological value of a
place that has never outgrown the special institutions producing it:
the hands of the clock have stopped at the most characteristic moment
of its existence; and so impressive, even to the unhistorical mind, is
its compact and vivid “exteriorisation” of a great phase of history,
that one wonders and shudders at, and finally almost comes to admire,
the superhuman stolidity of the successful merchant who has planted,
on the same ledge as the castle, and almost parallel with its Titanic
towers, a neatly turreted suburban villa, the sole attempt of modern
Coucy to give the retort to its overwhelming past.

       *       *       *       *       *

Taking Coucy as a centre, the traveller may, within a few hours,
extraordinarily vary his impressions, since the remarkable group of
monuments distributed over the triangular bit of France between Paris,
Rheims and Saint Quentin, comprises a characteristic example of almost
every architectural period from the early Middle Ages till the close of
the eighteenth century--the extremes being sometimes in as close touch
as Tracy-le-Val and Prémontré.

Turning first to the west, through a country of rolling fields and
wooded heights, vaguely English in its freedom from the devouring
agriculture of the centre, one comes on the most English impression
in France--the towers of Noyon rising above a girdle of orchards and
meadows. Noyon, indeed, to the end, maintains in one this illusion--so
softly misted with verdure, so lacking in the sharp edges of the
dry stony French town, it seems, by its old street-architecture
of cross-beams and stucco, by the smoothly turfed setting of the
cathedral, and the crowning surprise of a genuine “close” at its back,
to corroborate at every step the explorer’s first impression.

In the cathedral, indeed, one is no longer in England--though still
without being very definitely in France. For the interior of Noyon,
built at a time when northern art was still groping for its specific
expression, is a thing apart in cathedral architecture, one of those
fortunate variations from which, in the world of art as of nature, new
forms are sometimes developed. That in this case the variation remained
sterile, while it makes, no doubt, for a more exclusive enjoyment of
Noyon, leaves one conjecturing on the failure to transmit itself of
so original and successful an experiment. The deviation consists,
principally, in the fact that the transept ends of Noyon are rounded,
so that they form, in conjunction with the choir, a kind of apsidal
trefoil of the most studied and consummate grace. The instinctive use
of the word _grace_ perhaps explains as well as anything the failure
of Noyon to repeat itself (save once, half-heartedly, in the south
transept of Soissons). Grace at the expense of strength is, especially
from without, the total result of this unique blending of curves,
this prodigal repetition of an effect that, to produce its deepest
impression, should be used singly, and only as the culmination, the
ecstatic flowering, of a vigorous assemblage of straight lines.

But within the church, and especially from the point where the
sweep of both transepts may be seen flowing into the curves of the
choir, one is too deeply penetrated by the grace to feel in it any
latent weakness. For pure loveliness of line nothing in northern
church architecture--not even the long bold sweep of Canterbury
choir--surpasses the complex pattern of the east end of Noyon. And in
the detail of the interior construction the free, almost careless,
mingling of the round and the pointed arch heightens the effect of
Noyon as of something experimental, fugitive, not to come again--the
blue flower, as it were, of the Gothic garden--an experiment which
seems to express the fantasy of a single mind rather than such
collective endeavour as brought forth the great secular churches of the
Middle Ages.

While Noyon offers, in its general setting, and in certain
architectural peculiarities, suggestions so specifically English, the
type of its chief civic monument seems drawn from that Burgundian
region where the passing of Gothic into Renaissance forms found so
rich and picturesque an expression. The Hôtel de Ville of Noyon, built
in the middle of the fifteenth century, is a charming product of that
transitional moment which was at its best in the treatment of municipal
buildings, since domestic architecture was still cramped, and driven
to an overcrowding of detail, by the lingering habit of semi-defensive
construction. In the creation of the town-hall the new art could throw
off feudal restraints, and the architect of the graceful, ornate yet
sober building at Noyon--with its two façades so equally “composed” as
wholes, so lingered over and caressed in every part--has united all the
freedom of the new spirit with the patient care for detail that marked
the old.

[Illustration: NOYON: HÔTEL DE VILLE]

At Saint Quentin, not far to the northwest of Noyon, a town-hall of
more imposing dimensions suggests other architectural affinities. This
part of France is close to the Low Countries, and Flemish influences
have overflowed the borders. The late Gothic Hôtel de Ville at Saint
Quentin, with its elaborately composed façade surmounted by three
pointed gables, was completed at a period when, in other parts of
France, Renaissance forms were rapidly superseding the earlier style.
But here the Gothic lingers, as it did in the Low Countries, in a rich
yet sober and sturdy form of civic architecture which suits the moist
grey skies, the flat fields, the absence of any abrupt or delicate
lines in the landscape. Saint Quentin, a large dull manufacturing town,
with a nucleus of picturesque buildings grouped about its town-hall and
its deplorably renovated collegiate church, has a tone so distinctively
northern and provincial, that its other distinguishing possession--the
collection of portraits by the great _pastelliste_ Latour--seems almost
as much expatriated as though it were actually beyond the frontier. It
is difficult to conceive of the most expert interpreter of the Parisian
face as forming his style on physiognomies observed in the sleepy
streets and along the sluggish canals of Saint Quentin; and the return
of his pictures to his birthplace, if it has a certain historical
fitness, somehow suggests a violent psychological dislocation, and
makes one regard the vivid countenances lining the walls of the Musée
Lécuyer as those of _émigrés_ yearning to be back across the border.
For Latour worked in the Attic age when the least remoteness from Paris
was exile; and one may reasonably fancy the unmistakable likeness
between all his sitters to be the result of the strong centralising
pressure which left the French face no choice between Parisianism and
barbarism.

[Illustration: ST. QUENTIN: HÔTEL DE VILLE]

One’s first impression on entering this singular portrait gallery
is of coming into a _salon_ where all the habitués have taken the
same tone, where the angles of difference have been so rubbed down
that personalities are as hard to differentiate as in a group of
Orientals. The connecting link which unites a company ranging from
Vernezobre, the colour-dealer, to Madame la Dauphine, from the buffoon
Manelli to the Academician Duclos--this unifying trait is found in
the fixed smile on the lips of all the sitters. It is curious,
and a little disconcerting, on first entering, to see faces of such
marked individuality--from the rough unshorn Vernezobre to the mincing
Camargo--overrun by the same simper of “good company”--so disconcerting
that only by eliminating the universal Cupid’s-bow mouth, and trying to
see the other features without it, can one do justice to the vigorous
and penetrating portraiture of Latour. Then indeed the pictures affirm
themselves as “documents,” and the artist’s technical skill in varying
his methods with the type of his sitters becomes only less interesting
than the psychological insight of which, after all, it is a partial
expression. One’s attention is at first absorbed by the high personal
interest of the portraits; but when this has been allowed for, the
general conclusion resulting from their collective study is that,
even in that day of feminine ascendancy, the man’s face, not only
plastically but psychologically, was a far finer “subject” than the
woman’s. Latour had before his easel some of the most distinguished
examples of both; and how the men triumph and stand out, how Rousseau
and d’Alembert, Maurice de Saxe and the matchless Vernezobre
overshadow and efface all the Camargos and Dauphinesses, the Favarts
and Pompadours of the varied feminine assortment! Only one little
ghostly nameless creature--a model, a dancer, the catalogue uncertainly
conjectures--detaches herself from the polite assemblage as if impaled
with quivering wings on the sharp pencil of the portraitist. One
wonders if she knew she had been caught....

       *       *       *       *       *

The short run from Saint Quentin to Laon carries one, through charming
scenery, from the Low Countries into a region distinctively French,
but with such a touch of romance as Turner saw in the sober French
landscape when he did his “Rivers and Harbours.” Laon, the great
cathedral town of the north-east, is not seated on a river; but
the ridge that carries it rises so abruptly from the plain, and so
simulates the enclosing curves of a bay, that, as we approached it, the
silvery light on the spring fields at its base seemed like the shimmer
of water.

Seen from the road to Saint Quentin, Laon is one of the stateliest
hill-towns of France--indeed it suggests rivalry with the high-perched
Umbrian cities rather than with any nearer neighbours. At one extremity
of the strangely hooked cliff, the two ends of which bend toward each
other like a thumb and forefinger, stands the ruined abbey church
of Saint Vincent, now a part of the arsenal; at the other rises the
citadel, behind which are grouped the cathedral and episcopal palace;
and the apex of the triangle, between these pronged extremities, is
occupied by the church of Saint Martin, which lifts its Romanesque
towers above the remains of a Premonstratensian abbey. In the sheltered
hollow enclosed between the thumb and forefinger lies the _Cuve de
Saint Vincent_, a garden district of extraordinary fertility, and
beyond it the interminable plain flows away toward the Belgian frontier.

To the advantage of this site Laon adds the possession of
well-preserved ramparts, of two or three fortified gates to which
clusters of old houses have ingeniously attached themselves, and above
all of its seven-towered cathedral--a cathedral now no longer, though
its apse still adjoins an ancient group of diocesan buildings, from the
cloistered court of which one obtains the finest impression of the
lateral mass of the monument.

Notre Dame of Laon ranks in size among the “secondary” French
cathedrals; but both in composition and in detail it occupies a place
in architecture as distinctive as its natural setting, and perhaps no
higher praise can be awarded it than to say that, like the church of
Vézelay, it is worthy of the site it occupies.

[Illustration: LAON: GENERAL VIEW OF THE TOWN AND CATHEDRAL]

The seven towers of Laon are its most notable ornament; no other
cathedral roof of France bears such a glorious crown. Four only of
the towers have received their upper tiers of arcades; but the others
rise high enough above the roof-ridge to break its outline with
their massive buttresses and pyramidal capping. The taller four are
distinguished by the originality of their upper stories, of which
the intermediate one is octagonal, and broken up into four groups
of arches of extreme lightness and vigour, separated by stilted
round-arched openings which are carried through to the upper tier of
the tower. At the west end of the church, the open niches formed by the
octagonal sally of the tower-arcades are filled by colossal stone oxen,
modelled with a bold realism, and advancing from their high-perched
stalls almost as triumphantly as the brazen horses above the door of
Saint Mark’s.

These effigies are supposed to commemorate the services of the patient
beasts who dragged the stone for the cathedral up the cruel hill of
Laon; and looking up at their silhouettes, projected ponderously
against the blue, one is inclined to see in them a symbol of mediæval
church-building--of the moral and material cost at which Christianity
reared its monuments.

The oxen of Laon and the angels of Saint Père sous Vézelay might
indeed be said to stand for the two chief factors in this unparalleled
outburst of religious activity--the visionary passion that aroused
it, and the painful expenditure of human and animal labour that made
the vision a reality. When one reads of the rapidity with which many
of these prodigious works were executed, of the fever of devotion
that flamed in whole communities, one has, under the gladness and
exaltation, glimpses of a drudgery as unceasing and inconceivable as
that of the pyramid-builders, and out of which, perhaps, have grown the
more vigorous, the stabler fibres of European character--and one feels
that the triumphing oxen of Laon, though they stand for so vast a sum
of dull, unrewarded, unintelligible toil, have on the whole done more
for civilisation than the angels of Saint Père.

       *       *       *       *       *

At Soissons, an old city saturated with Roman and Merovingian memories,
Gothic art again triumphs, but in a different and a milder strain.

The short run from Laon to Soissons, through a gently undulating
landscape, prepares one for these softer impressions. The Gallo-Roman
city has neither the proud site nor the defensive outline of Laon. It
lies in the valley of the Aisne, in a circle of wooded hills, with
the river winding peaceably between the old town and its faubourg of
Saint Vaast. Passing through this faubourg, and crossing the Aisne,
one is caught in a maze of narrow streets, which lead up tortuously
to the cathedral square. The pressure of surrounding houses makes it
difficult to get a comprehensive view of the church, but one receives,
in narrow glimpses through the clipped limes of the market-place, a
general impression of grace and sobriety that somehow precludes any
strong individual effect. The cathedral of Soissons is indeed chiefly
remarkable for its repetition of the rounded transepts of Noyon; though
in this case (for reasons which it would be interesting to learn) the
round end, while receiving the farther development of an aisle and
triforium, has been applied only to one transept.

The thought of Soissons, however, at least in the mind of the passing
impressionist, must remain chiefly associated with that rarest creation
of the late Gothic of the north-east, the façade of Saint Jean des
Vignes. This church, which formed part of a monastic settlement in the
outskirts of the town, is now almost in ruins, and of the abbatial
buildings around it there remain only two admirable fragments of the
cloister arcade, and the abbot’s house, built at a much later date.
So complete is the outline of the beautiful west front that one would
hardly guess the ruin of the nave but for the blue sky showing through
the vast circle of the central rose, from which every fragment of
tracery has been stripped. Yet one can pardon even that inhumanity
to the destroyers who respected the towers--those incomparable
towers, so harmonious in their divergences, so typical of that lost
secret of mediæval art--the preservation of symmetry in unlikeness.
These western towers of Saint Jean, rising strongly on each side of
the central door, and reinforcing the airy elegance of the façade
by their vigorous vertical buttressing, break, at the level of the
upper gable, into pyramidal masses of differing height and breadth,
one more boldly tapering, the other more massive and complex, yet
preserving in a few essential features--the placing of the openings,
the correspondence of strong horizontal lines--a unity that dominates
their differences and binds them into harmony with the whole façade. It
is sad, on passing through the gaping western doorway, to find one’s
self on a bit of waste ground strewn with fragments of sculpture and
masonry--sadder still to have the desolation emphasized by coming here
on a bit of Gothic cloister, there on a still more distinctive specimen
of Renaissance arcading. The quality of these surviving fragments
indicates how great must have been the interest, both æsthetic and
historical, of this beautiful ruin, and revives the vain wish that,
in some remote corner of Europe, invasion and civil war might have
spared at least one complete example of a great monastic colony,
enabling one to visualise the humaner side of that mediæval life which
Carcassonne evokes in its militant aspect.

[Illustration: SOISSONS: RUINED CHURCH OF SAINT-JEAN-DES-VIGNES]

       *       *       *       *       *

The return from Soissons to Paris holds out so many delightful
alternatives, in respect both of scenery and architecture, that, in
April especially, the traveller may be excused for wavering between
Compiègne and Senlis, between Beauvais and Saint Leu d’Esserent.
Perhaps the road which traverses Senlis and Saint Leu, just because it
offers less exceptional impressions, brings one closer to the heart of
old France, to its inexhaustible store of sober and familiar beauty.
Senlis, for instance, is only a small sleepy town, with two or three
churches of minor interest--with that the guide-book might dismiss it;
but had there been anything in all our wanderings quite comparable to
the impression produced by that little cathedral in its quiet square--a
monument so compact yet noble, so embroidered with delicate detail,
above all so sunned-over with a wonderful golden lichen that it seems
like a dim old jewel-casket from which the gilding is almost worn?

The other churches of Senlis, enclosed, like the cathedral, in the
circuit of half-ruined walls that make a miniature _cité_ of the inner
town, have something of the exquisite quality of its central monument.
Both, as it happens, have been secularised, and Saint Pierre, the
later and more ornate of the two buildings, has suffered the irony
of being converted into a market, while Saint Frambourg, an ancient
collegiate church, has sunk to the uses of a storage warehouse. In each
case, access to the interior is sometimes hard to obtain; but the two
façades, one so delicate in its early Gothic reticence, the other so
prodigal of the last graces of the style, carry on almost unbrokenly
the architectural chronicle which begins with the Romanesque cathedral;
and the neglect, so painful to witness in the interior, has given them
a surface-tone almost rich enough to atone for the cost at which it has
been acquired.

       *       *       *       *       *

If, on leaving Senlis, one turns westward, skirting the wooded glades
of Chantilly, and crossing the park at the foot of the “Canal de la
Manche,” one comes presently into the valley of the Oise and, a few
kilomètres farther on, the village of Saint Leu d’Esserent lifts its
terraced church above the river.

The site of Saint Leu is that of the little peaked Mediterranean
towns: there is something defensive, defiant, in the way it grasps its
hill-side and lifts its church up like a shield. The town owes this
crowning ornament--and doubtless also its own slender existence--to
the founding here, in the eleventh century, of a great Cluniac abbey,
of which certain Romanesque arcades and a fortified gate may be
traced among the débris behind the apse. Of the original church there
survives only a round-arched tower, to which, in the latter half of the
twelfth century, was added what is perhaps the most homogeneous, and
assuredly the most beautiful, early Gothic structure in France. The
peculiar interest of this church of Saint Leu--apart from its intrinsic
nobility of design--lies in the fact of its being, so curiously, the
counterpart, the other side of the shield, of the church of Vézelay.
For, as at Vézelay one felt beneath the weight of the round openings
the impatient stirrings of the pointed arch, so here at Saint Leu,
where the latter form at last triumphs, its soaring movement is still
held down by the close-knit Romanesque frame of the church. It is hard
to define the cause of this impression, since at Saint Leu the pointed
style has quite freed itself, structurally, from Romanesque _entraves_,
all the chief elements of later Gothic construction being blent there
in so harmonious a composition that, as Mr. Charles Moore has pointed
out, the church might stand for a perfect example of “unadorned
Gothic.” All that later art could do toward the elaboration of such a
style was to add ornament, enlarge openings, and lighten the masses.
But by the doing of just that, the immense static value of the earlier
proportions was lost--and the distinction of Saint Leu is that it
blends, in perfect measure, Gothic lightness with Romanesque tenacity.

Of this the inside of the church is no less illustrative than its
exterior. Though the western bays of the nave were built later than its
eastern portion, they end in a narthex on the lines of the outer porch
of Vézelay, surmounted by a gallery from which the great sweep of the
aisles and triforium may be felt in all its grandeur. For, despite
the moderate proportions of the church, grandeur and reserve are its
dominating qualities--within and without it has attained the classic
balance that great art at all times has its own ways of reaching.

       *       *       *       *       *

Westward from Saint Leu, the valley of the Oise, fruitful but
somewhat shadeless, winds on toward Paris through pleasant riverside
towns--Beaumont, l’Isle-Adam, and the ancient city of Pontoise; and
beyond the latter, at a point where the river flings a large loop to
the west, one may turn east again and, crossing the forest of Saint
Germain, descend on Paris through the long shadows of the park of Saint
Cloud.



Transcriber’s Notes


Punctuation and spelling were made consistent when a predominant
preference was found in this book; otherwise they were not changed.

Simple typographical errors were corrected.

Incorrect and missing accent marks on some French words were remedied;
otherwise, the spelling of non-English words was not checked.

Ambiguous hyphens at the ends of lines were retained; occurrences of
inconsistent hyphenation have not been changed.

The captions in the List of Illustrations were italicized in the
original book. For visual clarity, that is not indicated in the
Plain Text version of this eBook.





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