A Little Tour In France/Chapter X

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A Little Tour In France by Henry James
Chapter X

The consequence of my leaving to the last my little mention of Loches is that space and opportunity fail me; and yet a brief and hurried account of that extraordinary spot would after all be in best agreement with my visit. We snatched a fearful joy, my companion and I, the afternoon we took the train for Loches. The weather this time had been terribly against us: again and again a day that promised fair became hopelessly foul after lunch. At last we determined that if we could not make this excursion in the sunshine, we would make it with the aid of our umbrellas. We grasped them firmly and started for the station, where we were detained an unconscionable time by the evolutions, outside, of certain trains laden with liberated (and exhilarated) conscripts, who, their term of service ended, were about to be restored to civil life. The trains in Touraine are provoking; they serve as little as possible for excursions. If they convey you one way at the right hour, it is on the condition of bringing you back at the wrong; they either allow you far too little time to examine the castle or the ruin, or they leave you planted in front of it for periods that outlast curiosity. They are perverse, capricious, exasperating. It was a question of our having but an hour or two at Loches, and we could ill afford to sacrifice to accidents. One of the accidents, however, was that the rain stopped before we got there, leaving behind it a moist mildness of temperature and a cool and lowering sky, which were in perfect agreement with the gray old city. Loches is certainly one of the greatest impressions of the traveller in central France, - the largest cluster of curious things that presents itself to his sight. It rises above the valley of the Indre, the charming stream set in meadows and sedges, which wanders through the province of Berry and through many of the novels of Madame George Sand; lifting from the summit of a hill, which it covers to the base, a confusion of terraces, ramparts, towers, and spires. Having but little time, as I say, we scaled the hill amain, and wandered briskly through this labyrinth of antiquities. The rain had decidedly stopped, and save that we had our train on our minds, we saw Loches to the best advantage. We enjoyed that sensation with which the conscientious tourist is - or ought to be - well acquainted, and for which, at any rate, he has a formula in his rough-and-ready language. We "experienced," as they say, (most odious of verbs!) an "agreeable disappointment." We were surprised and delighted; we had not suspected that Loches was so good.

I hardly know what is best there: the strange and impressive little collegial church, with its romanesque atrium or narthex, its doorways covered with primitive sculpture of the richest kind, its treasure of a so-called pagan altar, embossed with fighting warriors, its three pyramidal domes, so unexpected, so sinister, which I have not met elsewhere, in church architecture; or the huge square keep, of the eleventh century, - the most cliff-like tower I remember, whose immeasurable thickness I did not penetrate; or the subterranean mysteries of two other less striking but not less historic dungeons, into which a terribly imperative little cicerone introduced us, with the aid of downward ladders, ropes, torches, warnings, extended hands; and, many, fearful anecdotes, - all in impervious darkness. These horrible prisons of Loches, at an incredible distance below the daylight, were a favorite resource of Louis XI., and were for the most part, I believe, constructed by him. One of the towers of the castle is garnished with the hooks or supports of the celebrated iron cage in which he confined the Cardinal La Balue, who survived so much longer than might have been expected this extraordinary mixture of seclusion and exposure. All these things form part of the castle of Loches, whose enormous enceinte covers the whole of the top of the hill, and abounds in dismantled gateways, in crooked passages, in winding lanes that lead to postern doors, in long facades that look upon terraces interdicted to the visitor, who perceives with irritation that they command magnificent views. These views are the property of the sub-prefect of the department, who resides at the Chateau de Loches, and who has also the enjoyment of a garden - a garden compressed and curtailed, as those of old castles that perch on hill-tops are apt to be - containing a horse-chestnut tree of fabulous size, a tree of a circumference so vast and so perfect that the whole population of Loches might sit in concentric rows beneath its boughs. The gem of the place, however, is neither the big marronier, nor the collegial church, nor the mighty dungeon, nor the hideous prisons of Louis XI.; it is simply the tomb of Agnes Sorel, la belle des belles, so many years the mistress of Charles VII. She was buried, in 1450, in the collegial church, whence, in the beginning of the present century, her remains, with the monument that marks them, were transferred to one of the towers of the castle. She has always, I know not with what justice, enjoyed a fairer fame than most ladies who have occupied her position, and this fairness is expressed in the delicate statue that surmounts her tomb. It represents her lying there in lovely demureness, her hands folded with the best modesty, a little kneeling angel at either side of her head, and her feet, hidden in the folds of her decent robe, resting upon a pair of couchant lambs, innocent reminders of her name. Agnes, however, was not lamb-like, inasmuch as, according to popular tradition at least, she exerted herself sharply in favor of the expulsion of the English from France. It is one of the suggestions of Loches that the young Charles VII., hard put to it as he was for a treasury and a capital, - "le roi de Bourges," he was called at Paris, - was yet a rather privileged mortal, to stand up as he does before posterity between the noble Joan and the gentille Agnes; deriving, however much more honor from one of these companions than from the other. Almost as delicate a relic of antiquity as this fascinating tomb is the exquisite oratory of Anne of Brittany, among the apartments of the castle the only chamber worthy of note. This small room, hardly larger than a closet, and forming part of the addition made to the edifice by Charles VIII., is embroidered over with the curious and remarkably decorative device of the ermine and festooned cord. The objects in themselves are not especially graceful; but the constant repetition of the figure on the walls and ceiling produces an effect of richness, in spite of the modern whitewash with which, if I remember rightly, they have been endued. The little streets of Loches wander crookedly down the hill, and are full of charming pictorial "bits:" an old towngate, passing under a mediaeval tower, which is ornamented by Gothic windows and the empty niches of statues; a meagre but delicate hotel de ville, of the Renaissance, nestling close beside it; a curious chancellerie of the middle of the sixteenth century, with mythological figures and a Latin inscription on the front, - both of these latter buildings being rather unexpected features of the huddled and precipitous little town. Loches has a suburb on the other side of the Indre, which we had contented ourselves with looking down at from the heights, while we wondered whether, even if it had not been getting late and our train were more accommodating, we should care to take our way across the bridge and look up that bust, in terra-cotta, of Francis I., which is the principal ornament of the Chateau de Sansac and the faubourg of Beaulieu. I think we decided that we should not; that we were already quite well enough acquainted with the nasal profile of that monarch.