On Something/Perigeux of the Perigord

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On Something by Hilaire Belloc
Perigeux of the Perigord

I knew a man once. I met him in a wooden inn upon a bitterly cold day. He was an American, and we talked of many things. At last he said to me: "Have you ever seen the Matterhorn?"

"No," said I; for I hated the very name of it. Then he continued:

"It is the most surprising thing I ever saw."

"By the Lord," said I, "'you have found the very word!" I took out a sketch-book and noted his word "surprising." What admirable humour had this American; how subtle and how excellent a spirit! I have never seen the Matterhorn; but it seems that one comes round a corner, and there it is. It is surprising! Excellent word of the American. I never shall forget it!

An elephant escapes from a circus and puts his head in at your window while you are writing and thinking of a word. You look up. You may be alarmed, you may be astonished, you may be moved to sudden processes of thought; but one thing you will find about it, and you will find out quite quickly, and it will dominate all your other emotions of the time: the elephant's head will be surprising. You are caught. Your soul says loudly to its Creator: "Oh, this is something new!"

So did I first see in the moonlight up the quite unknown and quite deserted valley which the peak of the Dead Man dominates in a lonely and savage manner the main crest of the Pyrenees. So did I first see a land-fall when I first went overseas. So did I first see the Snowdon range when I was a little boy, having, until I woke up that morning and looked out of the windows of the hotel, never seen anything in my life more uplifted than the rounded green hills of South England.

Now the cathedral of St. Front in Perigeux of the Perigord is the most surprising thing in Europe. It is much more surprising than the hills - for a man made it. Man made it hundreds and hundreds of years ago; man has added to it, and, by the grace of his enthusiasm and his disciplined zeal, man has (thank God!) scraped, remodelled, and restored it. Upon my soul, to see such a thing I was proud to be an Anthropoid, and to claim cousinship with those dark citizens of the Dordogne and of Garonne and of the Tarn and of the Lot, and of whatever rivers fall into the Gironde. I know very well that they have sweated to indoctrinate, to persecute, to trim, to improve, to exterminate, to lift up, to cast down, to annoy, to amuse, to exasperate, to please, to enmusic, to offend, to glorify their kind. In some of these energies of theirs I blame them, in others I praise; but it is plainly evident that they know how to binge. I wished (for a moment) to be altogether of their race, like that strong cavalry man of their race to whom they have put up a statue pointing to his wooden leg. What an incredible people to build such an incredible church!

The Clericals claim it, the anti-Clericals adorn it. The Christians bemoan within it the wickedness of the times. The Atheists are baptized in it, married in it, denounced in it, and when they die are, in great coffins surrounded by great candles, to the dirge of the Dies Irae, to the booming of the vast new organ, very formally and determinedly absolved in it; and holy water is sprinkled over the black cloth and cross of silver. The pious and the indifferent, nay, the sad little army of earnest, intelligent, strenuous men who still anxiously await the death of religion - they all draw it, photograph it, paint it; they name their streets, their hotels, their villages, and their very children after it. It is like everything else in the world: it must be seen to be believed. It rises up in a big cluster of white domes upon the steep bank of the river. And sometimes you think it a fortress, and sometimes you think it a town, and sometimes you think it a vision. It is simple in plan and multiple in the mind; and after all these years I remember it as one remembers a sudden and unexpected chorus. It is well worthy of Perigeux of the Perigord.

Perigeux of the Perigord is Gaulish, and it has never died. When it was Roman it was Vesona; the temple of that patron Goddess still stands at its eastern gate, and it is one of those teaching towns which have never died, but in which you can find quite easily and before your eyes every chapter of our worthy story. In such towns I am filled as though by a book, with a contemplation of what we have done, and I have little doubt for our sons.

The city reclines and is supported upon the steep bank of the Isle just where the stream bends and makes an amphitheatre, so that men coming in from the north (which is the way the city was meant to be entered - and therefore, as you may properly bet, the railway comes in at the other side by the back door) see it all at once: a great sight. One goes up through its narrow streets, especially noting that street which is very nobly called after the man who tossed his sword in the air riding before the Conqueror at Hastings, Taillefer. One turns a narrow corner between houses very old and very tall, and then quite close, no longer a vision, but a thing to be touched, you see - to use the word again - the "surprising" thing. You see something bigger than you thought possible.

Great heavens, what a church!

Where have I heard a church called "the House of God"? I think it was in Westmorland near an inn called "The Nag's Head" - or perhaps "The Nag's Head" is in Cumberland - no matter, I did once hear a church so called. But this church has a right to the name. It is a gathering-up of all that men could do. It has fifty roofs, it has a gigantic signal tower, it has blank walls like precipices, and round arch after round arch, and architrave after architrave. It is like a good and settled epic; or, better still, it is like the life of a healthy and adventurous man who, having accomplished all his journeys and taken the Fleece of Gold, comes home to tell his stories at evening, and to pass among his own people the years that are left to him of his age. It has experience and growth and intensity of knowledge, all caught up into one unity; it conquers the hill upon which it stands. I drew one window and then another, and then before I had finished that a cornice, and then before I had finished that a porch, for it was evening when I saw it, and I had not many hours.

Music, they say, does something to the soul, filling it full of unsatisfied but transcendent desires, and making it guess, in glimpses that mix and fail, the soul's ultimate reward or destiny. Here, in Perigeux of the Perigord, where men hunt truffles with hounds, stone set in a certain order does what music is said to do. For in the sight of this standing miracle I could believe and confess, and doubt and fear, and control, all in one.

Here is, living and continuous, the Empire in its majority and its determination to be eternal. The people of the Perigord, the truffle-hunting people, need never seek civilization nor fear its death, for they have its symbol, and a sacrament, as it were, to promise them that the arteries of the life of Europe can never be severed. The arches and the entablatures of this solemn thing are alive.

It was built some say nine, some say eight hundred years ago; its apse was built yesterday, but the whole of it is outside time.

In human life, which goes with a short rush and then a lull, like the wind among trees before rains, great moments are remembered; they comfort us and they help us to laugh at decay. I am very glad that I once saw this church in Perigeux of the Perigord.

When I die I should like to be buried in my own land, but I should take it as a favour from the Bishop, who is master of this place, if he would come and give my coffin an absolution, and bring with him the cloth and the silver cross, and if he would carry in his hand (as some of the statues have) a little model of St. Front, the church which I have seen and which renewed my faith.