A Little Tour In France/Chapter XII
The cathedral is not the only lion of Bourges; the house of Jacques Coeur is an object of interest scarcely less positive. This remarkable man had a very strange history, and he too was "broken," like the wretched soldier whom I did not stay to see. He has been rehabilitated, however, by an age which does not fear the imputation of paradox, and a marble statue of him ornaments the street in front of his house. To interpret him according to this image - a womanish figure in a long robe and a turban, with big bare arms and a dramatic pose - would be to think of him as a kind of truculent sultana. He wore the dress of his period, but his spirit was very modern; he was a Vanderbilt or a Rothschild of the fifteenth century. He supplied the ungrateful Charles VII. with money to pay the troops who, under the heroic Maid, drove the English from French soil. His house, which to-day is used as a Palais de Justice, appears to have been regarded at the time it was built very much as the residence of Mr. Vanderbilt is regarded in New York to-day. It stands on the edge of the hill on which most of the town is planted, so that, behind, it plunges down to a lower level, and, if you approach it on that side, as I did, to come round to the front of it, you have to ascend a longish flight of steps. The back, of old, must have formed a portion of the city wall; at any rate, it offers to view two big towers, which Joanne says were formerly part of the defence of Bourges. From the lower level of which I speak - the square in front of the post-office - the palace of Jacques Coeur looks very big and strong and feudal; from the upper street, in front of it, it looks very handsome and delicate. To this street it presents two stories and a considerable length of facade; and it has, both within and without, a great deal of curious and beautiful detail. Above the portal, in the stonework, are two false windows, in which two figures, a man and a woman, apparently household servants, are represented, in sculpture, as looking down into the street. The effect is homely, yet grotesque, and the figures are sufficiently living to make one commiserate them for having been condemned, in so dull a town, to spend several centuries at the window. They appear to be watching for the return of their master, who left his beautiful house one morning and never came back.
The history of Jacques Coeur, which has been written by M. Pierre Clement, in a volume crowned by the French Academy, is very wonderful and interesting, but I have no space to go into it here. There is no more curious example, and few more tragical, of a great fortune crumbling from one day to the other, or of the antique superstition that the gods grow jealous of human success. Merchant, millionnaire, banker, ship-owner, royal favorite, and minister of finance, explorer of the East and monopolist of the glittering trade between that quarter of the globe and his own, great capitalist who had anticipated the brilliant operations of the present time, he expiated his prosperity by poverty, imprisonment, and torture. The obscure points in his career have been elucidated by M. Clement, who has drawn, moreover, a very vivid picture of the corrupt and exhausted state of France during the middle of the fifteenth century. He has shown that the spoliation of the great merchant was a deliberately calculated act, and that the king sacrificed him without scruple or shame to the avidity of a singularly villanous set of courtiers. The whole story is an extraordinary picture of high-handed rapacity, the crudest possible assertion of the right of the stronger. The victim was stripped of his property, but escaped with his life, made his way out of France, and, betaking himself to Italy, offered his services to the Pope. It is proof of the consideration that he enjoyed in Europe, and of the variety of his accomplishments, that Calixtus III. should have appointed him to take command of a fleet which his Holiness was fitting out against the Turks. Jacques Coeur, however, was not destined to lead it to victory. He died shortly after the expedition had started, in the island of Chios, in 1456. The house of Bourges, his native place, testifies in some degree to his wealth and splendor, though it has in parts that want of space which is striking in many of the buildings of the Middle Ages. The court, indeed, is on a large scale, ornamented with turrets and arcades, with several beautiful windows, and with sculptures inserted in the walls, representing the various sources of the great fortune of the owner. M. Pierre Clement describes this part of the house as having been of an "incomparable richesse," - an estimate of its charms which seems slightly exaggerated to-day. There is, however, something delicate and familiar in the bas-reliefs of which I have spoken, little scenes of agriculture and industry, which show, that the proprietor was not ashamed of calling attention to his harvests and enterprises. To-day we should question the taste of such allusions, even in plastic form, in the house of a "merchant prince" (say in the Fifth Avenue). Why is it, therefore, that these quaint little panels at Bourges do not displease us? It is perhaps because things very ancient never, for some mysterious reason, appear vulgar. This fifteenth-century millionnaire, with his palace, his egotistical sculptures, may have produced that impression on some critical spirits of his own day.
The portress who showed me into the building was a dear litte old woman, with the gentlest, sweetest, saddest face - a little white, aged face, with dark, pretty eyes - and the most considerate manner. She took me up into an upper hall, where there were a couple of curious chimney-pieces and a fine old oaken roof, the latter representing the hollow of a long boat. There is a certain oddity in a native of Bourges - an inland town if there ever was one, without even a river (to call a river) to encourage nautical ambitions - having found his end as admiral of a fleet; but this boatshaped roof, which is extremely graceful and is repeated in another apartment, would suggest that the imagination of Jacques Coeur was fond of riding the waves. Indeed, as he trafficked in Oriental products and owned many galleons, it is probable that he was personally as much at home in certain Mediterranean ports as in the capital of the pastoral Berry. If, when he looked at the ceilings of his mansion, he saw his boats upside down, this was only a suggestion of the shortest way of emptying them of their treasures. He is presented in person above one of the great stone chimney-pieces, in company with his wife, Macee de Leodepart, - I like to write such an extraordinary name. Carved in white stone, the two sit playing at chess at an open window, through which they appear to give their attention much more to the passers-by than to the game. They are also exhibited in other attitudes; though I do not recognize them in the composition on top of one of the fireplaces which represents the battlements of a castle, with the defenders (little figures between the crenellations) hurling down missiles with a great deal of fury and expression. It would have been hard to believe that the man who surrounded himself with these friendly and humorous devices had been guilty of such wrong-doing as to call down the heavy hand of justice.
It is a curious fact, however, that Bourges contains legal associations of a purer kind than the prosecution of Jacques Coeur, which, in spite of the rehabilitations of history, can hardly be said yet to have terminated, inasmuch as the law-courts of the city are installed in his quondam residence. At a short distance from it stands the Hotel Cujas, one of the curiosities of Bourges and the habitation for many years of the great jurisconsult who revived in the sixteenth century the study of the Roman law, and professed it during the close of his life in the university of the capital of Berry. The learned Cujas had, in spite of his sedentary pursuits, led a very wandering life; he died at Bourges in the year 1590. Sedentary pursuits is perhaps not exactly what I should call them, having read in the "Biographie Universelle" (sole source of my knowledge of the renowned Cujacius) that his usual manner of study was to spread himself on his belly on the floor. He did not sit down, he lay down; and the "Biographie Universelle" has (for so grave a work) an amusing picture of the short, fat, untidy scholar dragging himself a plat ventre across his room, from one pile of books to the other. The house in which these singular gymnastics took place, and which is now the headquarters of the gendarmerie, is one of the most picturesque at Bourges. Dilapidated and discolored, it has a charming Renaissance front. A high wall separates it from the street, and on this wall, which is divided by a large open gateway, are perched two overhanging turrets. The open gateway admits you to the court, beyond which the melancholy mansion erects itself, decorated also with turrets, with fine old windows, and with a beautiful tone of faded red brick and rusty stone. It is a charming encounter for a provincial bystreet; one of those accidents in the hope of which the traveller with a propensity for sketching (whether on a little paper block or on the tablets of his brain) decides to turn a corner at a venture. A brawny gendarme, in his shirt-sleeves, was polishing his boots in the court; an ancient, knotted vine, forlorn of its clusters, hung itself over a doorway, and dropped its shadow on the rough grain of the wall. The place was very sketchable. I am sorry to say, however, that it was almost the only "bit." Various other curious old houses are supposed to exist at Bourges, and I wandered vaguely about in search of them. But I had little success, and I ended by becoming sceptical. Bourges is a ville de province in the full force of the term, especially as applied invidiously. The streets, narrow, tortuous, and dirty, have very wide cobblestones; the houses for the most part are shabby, without local color. The look of things is neither modern nor antique, - a kind of mediocrity of middle age. There is an enormous number of blank walls, - walls of gardens, of courts, of private houses - that avert themselves from the street, as if in natural chagrin at there being so little to see. Round about is a dull, flat, featureless country, on which the magnificent cathedral looks down. There is a peculiar dulness and ugliness in a French town of this type, which, I must immediately add, is not the most frequent one. In Italy, everything has a charm, a color, a grace; even desolation and ennui. In England a cathedral city may be sleepy, but it is pretty sure to be mellow. In the course of six weeks spent en province, however, I saw few places that had not more expression than Bourges.
I went back to the cathedral; that, after all, was a feature. Then I returned to my hotel, where it was time to dine, and sat down, as usual, with the commisvoyageurs, who cut their bread on their thumb and partook of every course; and after this repast I repaired for a while to the cafe, which occupied a part of the basement of the inn and opened into its court. This cafe was a friendly, homely, sociable spot, where it seemed the habit of the master of the establishment to tutoyer his customers, and the practice of the customers to tutoyer the waiter. Under these circumstances the waiter of course felt justified in sitting down at the same table with a gentleman who had come in and asked him for writing materials. He served this gentleman with a horrible little portfolio, covered with shiny black cloth and accompanied with two sheets of thin paper, three wafers, and one of those instruments of torture which pass in France for pens, - these being the utensils invariably evoked by such a request; and then, finding himself at leisure, he placed himself opposite and began to write a letter of his own. This trifling incident reminded me afresh that France is a democratic country. I think I received an admonition to the same effect from the free, familiar way in which the game of whist was going on just behind me. It was attended with a great deal of noisy pleasantry, flavored every now and then with a dash of irritation. There was a young man of whom I made a note; he was such a beautiful specimen of his class. Sometimes he was very facetious, chattering, joking, punning, showing off; then, as the game went on and he lost, and had to pay the consommation, he dropped his amiability, slanged his partner, declared he wouldn't play any more, and went away in a fury. Nothing could be more perfect or more amusing than the contrast. The manner of the whole affair was such as, I apprehend, one would not have seen among our English-speaking people; both the jauntiness of the first phase and the petulance of the second. To hold the balance straight, however, I may remark that if the men were all fearful "cads," they were, with their cigarettes and their inconsistency, less heavy, less brutal, than our dear English-speaking cad; just as the bright little cafe where a robust materfamilias, doling out sugar and darning a stocking, sat in her place under the mirror behind the comptoir, was a much more civilized spot than a British publichouse, or a "commercial room," with pipes and whiskey, or even than an American saloon.