A Little Tour In France/Chapter XVI

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A Little Tour In France by Henry James
Chapter XVI

To go from Nantes to La Rochelle you travel straight southward, across the historic bocage of La Vendee, the home of royalist bush-fighting. The country, which is exceedingly pretty, bristles with copses, orchards, hedges, and with trees more spreading and sturdy than the traveller is apt to deem the feathery foliage of France. It is true that as I proceeded it flattened out a good deal, so that for an hour there was a vast featureless plain, which offered me little entertainment beyond the general impression that I was approaching the Bay of Biscay (from which, in reality, I was yet far distant). As we drew near La Rochelle, however, the prospect brightened considerably, and the railway kept its course beside a charming little canal, or canalized river, bordered with trees, and with small, neat, bright-colored, and yet old-fashioned cottages and villas, which stood back on the further side, behind small gardens, hedges, painted palings, patches of turf. The whole effect was Dutch and delightful; and in being delightful, though not in being Dutch, it prepared me for the charms of La Rochelle, which from the moment I entered it I perceived to be a fascinating little town, a most original mixture of brightness and dulness. Part of its brightness comes from its being extraordinarily clean, - in which, after all, it is Dutch; a virtue not particularly noticeable at Bourges, Le Mans, and Angers. Whenever I go southward, if it be only twenty miles, I begin to look out for the south, prepared as I am to find the careless grace of those latitudes even in things of which it may, be said that they may be south of something, but are not southern. To go from Boston to New York (in this state of mind) is almost as soft a sensation as descending the Italian side, of the Alps; and to go from New York to Philadelphia is to enter a zone of tropical luxuriance and warmth. Given this absurd disposition, I could not fail to flatter myself, on reaching La Rochelle, that I was already in the Midi, and to perceive in everything, in the language of the country, the caractere meridional. Really, a great many things had a hint of it. For that matter, it seems to me that to arrive in the south at a bound - to wake up there, as it were - would be a very imperfect pleasure. The full pleasure is to approach by stages and gradations; to observe the successive shades of difference by which it ceases to be the north. These shades are exceedingly fine, but your true south-lover has an eye for them all. If he perceive them at New York and Philadelphia, - we imagine him boldly as liberated from Boston, - how could he fail to perceive them at La Rochelle? The streets of this dear little city are lined with arcades, - good, big, straddling arcades of stone, such as befit a land of hot summers, and which recalled to me, not to go further, the dusky portions of Bayonne. It contains, moreover, a great wide place d'armes, which looked for all the world like the piazza of some dead Italian town, empty, sunny, grass-grown, with a row of yellow houses overhanging it, an unfrequented cafe, with a striped awning, a tall, cold, florid, uninteresting cathedral of the eighteenth century on one side, and on the other a shady walk, which forms part of an old rampart. I followed this walk for some time, under the stunted trees, beside the grass-covered bastions; it is very charming, winding and wandering, always with trees. Beneath the rampart is a tidal river, and on the other side, for a long distance, the mossy walls of the immense garden of a seminary. Three hundred years ago, La Rochelle was the great French stronghold of Protestantism; but to-day it appears to be a'nursery of Papists.

The walk upon the rampart led me round to one of the gatesi of the town, where I found some small modern, fortifications and sundry red-legged soldiers, and, beyond the fortifications, another shady walk, a mail, as the French say, as well as a champ de manoeuvre, - on which latter expanse the poor little red-legs were doing their exercise. It was all very quiet and very picturesque, rather in miniature; and at once very tidy and a little out of repair. This, however, was but a meagre back-view of La Rochelle, or poor side-view at best. There are other gates than the small fortified aperture just mentioned; one of them, an old gray arch beneath a fine clock-tower, I had passed through on my way from the station. This picturesque Tour de l'Horloge separates the town proper from the port; for beyond the old gray arch, the place presents its bright, expressive little face to the sea. I had a charming walk about the harbor, and along the stone piers and sea-walls that shut it in. This indeed, to take things in their order, was after I had had my breakfast (which I took on arriving) and after I had been to the hotel de ville. The inn had a long narrow garden behind it, with some very tall trees; and passing through this garden to a dim and secluded salle a manger, buried in the heavy shade, I had, while I sat at my repast, a feeling of seclusion which amounted almost to a sense of incarceration. I lost this sense, however, after I had paid my bill, and went out to look for traces of the famous siege, which is the principal title of La Rochelle to renown. I had come thither partly because I thought it would be interesting to stand for a few moments in so gallant a spot, and partly because, I confess, I had a curiosity to see what had been the starting-point of the Huguenot emigrants who founded the town of New Rochelle in the State of New York, a place in which I had passed certain memorable hours. It was strange to think, as I strolled through the peaceful little port, that these quiet waters, during the wars of religion, had swelled with a formidable naval power. The Rochelais had fleets and admirals, and their stout little Protestant bottoms carried defiance up and down.

To say that I found any traces of the siege would be to misrepresent the taste for vivid whitewash by which La Rochelle is distinguished to-day. The only trace is the dent in the marble top of the table on which, in the hotel de ville, Jean Guiton, the mayor of the city, brought down his dagger with an oath, when in 1628 the vessels and regiments of Richelieu closed about it on sea and land. This terrible functionary was the soul of the resistance; he held out from February to October, in the midst of pestilence and famine. The whole episode has a brilliant place among the sieges of history; it has been related a hundred times, and I may only glance at it and pass. I limit my ambition, in these light pages, to speaking of those things of which I have personally received an impression; and I have no such impression of the defence of La Rochelle. The hotel de ville is a pretty little building, in the style of the Renaissance of Francis I.; but it has left much of its interest in the hands of the restorers. It has been "done up" without mercy; its natural place would be at Rochelle the New. A sort of battlemented curtain, flanked with turrets, divides it from the street and contains a low door (a low door in a high wall is always felicitous), which admits you to an inner court, where you discover the face of the building. It has statues set into it, and is raised upon a very low and very deep arcade. The principal function of the deferential old portress who conducts you over the place is to call your attention to the indented table of Jean Guiton; but she shows you other objects of interest besides. The interior is absolutely new and extremely sumptuous, abounding in tapestries, upholstery, morocco, velvet, satin. This is especially the case with a really beautiful grande salle, where, surrdunded with the most expensive upholstery, the mayor holds his official receptions. (So at least, said my worthy portress.) The mayors of La Rochelle appear to have changed a good deal since the days of the grim Guiton; but these evidences of municipal splendor are interesting for the light they throw on French manners. Imagine the mayor of an English or an American town of twenty thousand inhabitants holding magisterial soirees in the town-hall! The said grande salle, which is unchanged in form and its larger features, is, I believe, the room in which the Rochelais debated as to whether they should shut themselves up, and decided in the affirmative. The table and chair of Jean Guiton have been restored, Iike everything else, and are very elegant and coquettish pieces of furniture, - incongruous relics of a season of starvation and blood. I believe that Protestantism is somewhat shrunken to-day at La Rochelle, and has taken refuge mainly in. the haute societe and in a single place of worship. There was nothing particular to remind me of its supposed austerity as, after leaving the hotel de ville, I walked along the empty portions and cut out of the Tour de l'Horloge, which I have already mentioned. If I stopped and looked up at this venerable monument, it was not to ascertain the hour, for I foresaw that I should have more time at La Rochelle than I knew what to do with; but because its high, gray, weather-beaten face was an obvious subject for a sketch. The little port, which has two basins, and is accessible only to vessels of light tonnage, had a certain gayety and as much local color as you please. Fisher folk of pictuesque type were strolling about, most of them Bretons; several of the men with handsome, simple faces, not at all brutal, and with a splendid brownness, - the golden-brown color, on cheek and beard, that you see on an old Venetian sail. It was a squally, showery day, with sudden drizzles of sunshine; rows of rich-toned fishing-smacks were drawn up along the quays. The harbor is effective to the eye by reason of three battered old towers which, at different points, overhang it and look infinitely weatherwashed and sea-silvered. The most striking of these, the Tour de la Lanterne, is a big gray mass, of the fifteenth century, flanked with turrets and crowned with a Gothic steeple. I found it was called by the people of the place the Tour des Quatre Sergents, though I know not what connection it has with the touching history of the four young sergeants of the garrison of La Rochelle, who were arrested in 1821 as conspirators against the Government of the Bourbons, and executed, amid general indignation, in Paris in the following year. The quaint little walk, with its label of Rue sur les Murs, to which one ascends from beside the Grosse Horloge, leads to this curious Tour de la Lanterne and passes under it. This walk has the top of the old town-wall, toward the sea, for a parapet on one side, and is bordered on the other with decent but irregular little tenements of fishermen, where brown old women, whose caps are as white as if they were painted, seem chiefly in possession. In this direction there is a very pretty stretch of shore, out of the town, through the fortifications (which are Vauban's, by the way); through, also, a diminutive public garden or straggling shrubbery, which edges the water and carries its stunted verdure as far as a big Etablissernent des Bains. It was too late in the year to bathe, and the Etablissement had the bankrupt aspect which belongs to such places out of the season; so I turned my back upon it, and gained, by a circuit in the course of which there were sundry water-side items to observe, the other side of the cheery little port, where there is a long breakwater and a still longer sea-wall, on which I walked awhile, to inhale the strong, salt breath of the Bay of Biscay. La Rochelle serves, in the months of July and August, as a station de bains for a modest provincial society; and, putting aside the question of inns, it must be charming on summer afternoons.