A Little Tour In France/Chapter XXIX
On my way from Nimes to Arles, I spent three hours at Tarascon; chiefly for the love of Alphonse Daudet, who has written nothing more genial than "Les Aventures Prodigieuses de Taitarin," and the story of the "siege" of the bright, dead little town (a mythic siege by the Prussians) in the "Conies du Lundi." In the introduction which, for the new edition of his works, he has lately supplied to "Tartarin," the author of this extravagant but kindly satire gives some account of the displeasure with which he has been visited by the ticklish Tarasconnais. Daudet relates that in his attempt to shed a humorous light upon some of the more erratic phases of the Provencal character, he selected Tarascon at a venture; not because the temperament of its natives is more vainglorious than that of their neighbors, or their rebellion against the "despotism of fact" more marked, but simply because he had to name a particular Provencal city. Tartarin is a hunter of lions and charmer of women, a true "produit du midi," as Daudet says, who has the most fantastic and fabulous adventures. He is a minimized Don Quixote, with much less dignity, but with equal good faith; and the story of his exploits is a little masterpiece of the light comical. The Tarasconnais, however, declined to take the joke, and opened the vials of their wrath upon the mocking child of Nimes, who would have been better employed, they doubtless thought, in showing up the infirmities of his own family. I am bound to add that when I passed through Tarascon they did not appear to be in the least out of humor. Nothing could have been brighter, softer, more suggestive of amiable indifference, than the picture it presented to my mind. It lies quietly beside the Rhone, looking across at Beaucaire, which seems very distant and independent, and tacitly consenting to let the castle of the good King Rene of Anjou, which projects very boldly into the river, pass for its most interesting feature. The other features are, primarily, a sort of vivid sleepiness in the aspect of the place, as if the September noon (it had lingered on into October) lasted longer there than elsewhere; certain low arcades, which make the streets look gray and exhibit empty vistas; and a very curious and beautiful walk beside the Rhone, denominated the Chaussee, - a long and narrow causeway, densely shaded by two rows of magnificent old trees, planted in its embankment, and rendered doubly effective, at the moment I passed over it, by a little train of collegians, who had been taken out for mild exercise by a pair of young priests. Lastly, one may say that a striking element of Tarascon, as of any town that lies on the Rhone, is simply the Rhone itself: the big brown flood, of uncertain temper, which has never taken time to forget that it is a child of the mountain and the glacier, and that such an origin carries with it great privileges. Later, at Avignon, I observed it in the exercise of these privileges, chief among which was that of frightening the good people of the old papal city half out of their wits.
The chateau of King Rene serves to-day as the prison of a district, and the traveller who wishes to look into it must obtain his permission at the Mairie of Tarascon. If he have had a certain experience of French manners, his application will be accompanied with the forms of a considerable obsequiosity, and in this case his request will be granted as civilly as it has been made. The castle has more of the air of a severely feudal fortress than I should suppose the period of its construction (the first half of the fifteenth century) would have warranted; being tremendously bare and perpendicular, and constructed for comfort only in the sense that it was arranged for defence. It is a square and simple mass, composed of small yellow stones, and perched on a pedestal of rock which easily commands the river. The building has the usual circular towers at the corners, and a heavy cornice at the top, and immense stretches of sun-scorched wall, relieved at wide intervals by small windows, heavily cross-barred. It has, above all, an extreme steepness of aspect; I cannot express it otherwise. The walls are as sheer and inhospitable as precipices. The castle has kept its large moat, which is now a hollow filled with wild plants. To this tall fortress the good Rene retired in the middle of the fifteenth century, finding it apparently the most substantial thing left him in a dominion which had included Naples and Sicily, Lorraine and Anjou. He had been a much-tried monarch and the sport of a various fortune, fighting half his life for thrones he didn't care for, and exalted only to be quickly cast down. Provence was the country of his affection, and the memory of his troubles did not prevent him from holding a joyous court at Tarascon and at Aix. He finished the castle at Tarascon, which had been begun earlier in the century, - finished it, I suppose, for consistency's sake, in the manner in which it had originally been designed rather than in accordance with the artistic tastes that formed the consolation of his old age. He was a painter, a writer, a dramatist, a modern dilettante, addicted to private theatricals. There is something very attractive in the image that he has imprinted on the page of history. He was both clever and kind, and many reverses and much suffering had not imbittered him nor quenched his faculty of enjoyment. He was fond of his sweet Provence, and his sweet Provence has been grateful; it has woven a light tissue of legend around the memory of the good King Rene.
I strolled over his dusky habitation - it must have taken all his good-humor to light it up - at the heels of the custodian, who showed me the usual number of castle-properties: a deep, well-like court; a collection of winding staircases and vaulted chambers, the embrasures of whose windows and the recesses of whose doorways reveal a tremendous thickness of wall. These things constitute the general identity of old castles; and when one has wandered through a good many, with due discretion of step and protrusion of head, one ceases very much to distinguish and remember, and contents one's self with consigning them to the honorable limbo of the romantic. I must add that this reflection did not the least deter me from crossing the bridge which connects Tarascon with Beaucaire, in order to examine the old fortress whose ruins adorn the latter city. It stands on a foundation of rock much higher than that of Tarascon, and looks over with a melancholy expression at its better-conditioned brother. Its position is magnificent, and its outline very gallant. I was well rewarded for my pilgrimage; for if the castle of Beaucaire is only a fragment, the whole place, with its position and its views, is an ineffaceable picture. It was the stronghold of the Montmorencys, and its last tenant was that rash Duke Francois, whom Richelieu, seizing every occasion to trample on a great noble, caused to be beheaded at Toulouse, where we saw, in the Capitol, the butcher's knife with which the cardinal pruned the crown of France of its thorns. The castle, after the death of this victim, was virtually demolished. Its site, which Nature to-day has taken again to herself, has an extraordinary charm. The mass of rock that it formerly covered rises high above the town, and is as precipitous as the side of the Rhone. A tall rusty iron gate admits you from a quiet corner of Beaucaire to a wild tangled garden, covering the side of the hill, for the whole place forms the public promenade of the townsfolk, - a garden without flowers, with little steep, rough paths that wind under a plantation of small, scrubby stone-pines. Above this is the grassy platform of the castle, enclosed on one side only (toward the river) by a large fragment of wall and a very massive dungeon. There are benches placed in the lee of the wall, and others on the edge of the platform, where one may enjoy a view, beyond the river, of certain peeled and scorched undulations. A sweet desolation, an everlasting peace, seemed to hang in the air. A very old man (a fragment, like the castle itself) emerged from some crumbling corner to do me the honors, - a very gentle, obsequious, tottering, toothless, grateful old man. He beguiled me into an ascent of the solitary tower, from which you may look down on the big sallow river and glance at diminished Tarascon, and the barefaced, bald-headed hills behind it. It may appear that I insist too much upon the nudity of the Provencal horiion, - too much, considering that I have spoken of the prospect from the heights of Beaucaire as lovely. But it is an exquisite bareness; it seems to exist for the purpose of allowing one to follow the delicate lines of the hills, and touch with the eyes, as it were, the smallest inflections of the landscape. It makes the whole thing seem wonderfully bright and pure.
Beaucaire used to be the scene of a famous fair, the great fair of the south of France. It has gone the way of most fairs, even in France, where these delightful exhibitions hold their own much better than might be supposed. It is still held in the month of July; but the bourgeoises of Tarascon send to the Magasin du Louvre for their smart dresses, and the principal glory of the scene is its long tradition. Even now, however, it ought to be the prettiest of all fairs, for it takes place in a charming wood which lies just beneath the castle, beside the Rhone. The booths, the barracks, the platforms of the mountebanks, the bright-colored crowd, diffused through this midsummer shade, and spotted here and there with the rich Provencal sunshine must be of the most pictorial effect. It is highly probable, too, that it offers a large collection of pretty faces; for even in the few hours that I spent at Tarascon I discovered symptoms of the purity of feature for which the women of the pays d'Arles are renowned. The Arlesian head-dress, was visible in the streets; and this delightful coiffure is so associated with a charming facial oval, a dark mild eye, a straight Greek nose, and a mouth worthy of all the rest, that it conveys a presumption of beauty which gives the wearer time either to escape or to please you. I have read somewhere, however, that Tarascon is supposed to produce handsome men, as Arles is known to deal in handsome women. It may be that I should have found the Tarasconnais very fine fellows, if I had encountered enough specimens to justify an induction. But there were very few males in the streets, and the place presented no appearance of activity. Here and there the black coif of an old woman or of a young girl was framed by a low doorway; but for the rest, as I have said, Tarascon was mostly involved in a siesta. There was not a creature in the little church of Saint Martha, which I made a point of visiting before I returned to the station, and which, with its fine Romanesque sideportal and its pointed and crocketed Gothic spire, is as curious as it need be, in view of its tradition. It stands in a quiet corner where the grass grows between the small cobble-stones, and you pass beneath a deep archway to reach it. The tradition relates that Saint Martha tamed with her own hands, and attached to her girdle, a dreadful dragon, who was known as the Tarasque, and is reported to have given his name to the city on whose site (amid the rocks which form the base of the chateau) he had his cavern. The dragon, perhaps, is the symbol of a ravening paganism, dispelled by the eloquence of a sweet evangelist. The bones of the interesting saint, at all events, were found, in the eleventh century, in a cave beneath the spot on which her altar now stands. I know not what had become of the bones of the dragon.