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Chapter 10

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 extra-
ordinary 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 hope-
lessly 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 evolu-
tions, 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 bring-
ing 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, ex-
asperating. It was a question of our having but an
hour or two at Loches, and we could ill afford to sacri-
fice to accidents. One of the accidents, however, was
that the rain stopped before we got there, leaving be-
hind 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 thick-
ness 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 intro-
duced 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 extra-
ordinary mixture of seclusion and exposure. All these
things form part of the castle of Loches, whose enorm-
ous _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 com-
mand 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 enjoy-
ment 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 con-
centric 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 ex-
pulsion 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 town-
gate, passing under a mediaeval tower, which is orna-
mented 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 _chancel-
lerie_ of the middle of the sixteenth century, with
mythological figures and a Latin inscription on the
front, - both of these latter buildings being rather un-
expected 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.

Henry James