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Chapter 11

I know not whether the exact limits of an excur-
sion, as distinguished from a journey, have ever been
fixed; at any rate, it seemed none of my business, at
Tours, to settle the question. Therefore, though the
making of excursions had been the purpose of my
stay, I thought it vain, while I started for Bourges, to
determine to which category that little expedition
might belong. It was not till the third day that I re-
turned to Tours; and the distance, traversed for the
most part after dark, was even greater than I had sup-
posed. That, however, was partly the fault of a tire-
some wait at Vierzon, where I had more than enough
time to dine, very badly, at the _buffet_, and to observe
the proceedings of a family who had entered my rail-
way carriage at Tours and had conversed unreservedly,
for my benefit, all the way from that station, - a family
whom it entertained me to assign to the class of _petite
noblesse de province_. Their noble origin was confirmed
by the way they all made _maigre_ in the refreshment
oom (it happened to be a Friday), as if it had been
possible to do anything else. They ate two or three
omelets apiece, and ever so many little cakes, while
the positive, talkative mother watched her children as
the waiter handed about the roast fowl. I was destined
to share the secrets of this family to the end; for
when I had taken place in the empty train that was
in waiting to convey us to Bourges, the same vigilant
woman pushed them all on top of me into my com-
partment, though the carriages on either side con-
tained no travellers at all. It was better, I found, to
have dined (even on omelets and little cakes) at the
station at Vierzon than at the hotel at Bourges, which,
when I reached it at nine o'clock at night, did not
strike me as the prince of hotels. The inns in the
smaller provincial towns in France are all, as the term
is, commercial, and the _commis-voyageur_ is in triumphant
possession. I saw a great deal of him for several
weeks after this; for he was apparently the only traveller
in the southern provinces, and it was my daily fate to
sit opposite to him at tables d'hote and in railway
trains. He may be known by two infallible signs, -
his hands are fat, and he tucks his napkin into his
shirt-collar. In spite of these idiosyncrasies, he seemed
to me a reserved and inoffensive person, with singularly
little of the demonstrative good-humor that he has
been described as possessing. I saw no one who re-
minded me of Balzac's "illustre Gaudissart;" and in-
deed, in the course of a month's journey through a
large part of France, I heard so little desultory con-
versation that I wondered whether a change had not
come over the spirit of the people. They seemed to
me as silent as Americans when Americans have not
been "introduced," and infinitely less addicted to ex-
changing remarks in railway trains and at tables d'hote
the colloquial and cursory English; a fact per-
haps not worth mentioning were it not at variance
with that reputation which the French have long en-
joyed of being a pre-eminently sociable nation. The
common report of the character of a people is, how-
ever, an indefinable product; and it is, apt to strike
the traveller who observes for himself as very wide of
the mark. The English, who have for ages been de-
scribed (mainly by the French) as the dumb, stiff,
unapproachable race, present to-day a remarkable ap-
pearance of good-humor and garrulity, and are dis-
tinguished by their facility of intercourse. On the
other hand, any one who has seen half a dozen
Frenchmen pass a whole day together in a railway-
carriage without breaking silence is forced to believe
that the traditional reputation of these gentlemen is
simply the survival of some primitive formula. It was
true, doubtless, before the Revolution; but there have
been great changes since then. The question of which
is the better taste, to talk to strangers or to hold your
tongue, is a matter apart; I incline to believe that the
French reserve is the result of a more definite con-
ception of social behavior. I allude to it only be-
came it is at variance with the national fame, and at
the same time is compatible with a very easy view of
life in certain other directions. On some of these
latter points the Boule d'Or at Bourges was full of
instruction; boasting, as it did, of a hall of reception
in which, amid old boots that had been brought to be
cleaned, old linen that was being sorted for the wash,
and lamps of evil odor that were awaiting replenish-
ment, a strange, familiar, promiscuous household life
went forward. Small scullions in white caps and aprons
slept upon greasy benches; the Boots sat staring at
you while you fumbled, helpless, in a row of pigeon-
holes, for your candlestick or your key; and, amid the
coming and going of the _commis-voyageurs_, a little
sempstress bent over the under-garments of the hostess,
- the latter being a heavy, stem, silent woman, who
looked at people very hard.

It was not to be looked at in that manner that one
had come all the way from Tours; so that within ten
minutes after my arrival I sallied out into the dark-
ness to get somehow and somewhere a happier im-
pression. However late in the evening I may arrive
at a place, I cannot go to bed without an impression.
The natural place, at Bourges, to look for one seemed
to be the cathedral; which, moreover, was the only
thing that could account for my presence _dans cette
galere_. I turned out of a small square, in front of the
hotel, and walked up a narrow, sloping street, paved
with big, rough stones and guiltless of a foot-way.
It was a splendid starlight night; the stillness of a
sleeping _ville de province_ was over everything; I had
the whole place to myself. I turned to my right, at
the top of the street, where presently a short, vague
lane brought me into sight of the cathedral. I ap-
proached it obliquely, from behind; it loomed up in
the darkness above me, enormous and sublime. It
stands on the top of the large but not lofty eminence
over which Bourges is scattered, - a very good position,
as French cathedrals go, for they are not all so nobly
situated as Chartres and Laon. On the side on which
I approached it (the south) it is tolerably well ex-
posed, though the precinct is shabby; in front, it is
rather too much shut in. These defects, however, it
makes up for on the north side and behind, where it
presents itself in the most admirable manner to the
garden of the Archeveche, which has been arranged
as a public walk, with the usual formal alleys of the
_jardin francais_. I must add that I appreciated these
points only on the following day. As I stood there in
the light of the stars, many of which had an autumnal
sharpness, while others were shooting over the heavens,
the huge, rugged vessel of the church overhung me in
very much the same way as the black hull of a ship
at sea would overhang a solitary swimmer. It seemed
colossal, stupendous, a dark leviathan.

The next morning, which was lovely, I lost no
time in going back to it, and found, with satisfaction,
that the daylight did it no injury. The cathedral of
Bourges is indeed magnificently huge; and if it is a
good deal wanting in lightness and grace it is perhaps
only the more imposing. I read in the excellent hand-
book of M. Joanne that it was projected "_des_ 1172,"
but commenced only in the first years of the thirteenth
century. "The nave" the writer adds, "was finished
_tant bien que mal, faute de ressources;_ the facade is of
the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in its lower
part, and of the fourteenth in its upper." The allusion
to the nave means the omission of the transepts. The
west front consists of two vast but imperfect towers;
one of which (the south) is immensely buttressed, so
that its outline slopes forward, like that of a pyramid,
being the taller of the two. If they had spires, these
towers would be prodigious; as it is, given the rest
of the church, they are wanting in elevation. There
are five deeply recessed portals, all in a row, each
surmounted with a gable; the gable over the central
door being exceptionally high. Above the porches,
which give the measure of its width, the front rears
itself, piles itself, on a great scale, carried up by gal-
leries, arches, windows, sculptures, and supported by
the extraordinarily thick buttresses of which I have
spoken, and which, though they embellish it with deep
shadows thrown sidewise, do not improve its style.
The portals, especially the middle one, are extremely
interesting; they are covered with curious early sculp-
tures. The middle one, however, I must describe
alone. It has no less than six rows of figures, - the
others have four, - some of which, notably the upper
one, are still in their places. The arch at the top has
three tiers of elaborate imagery. The upper of these
is divided by the figure of Christ in judgment, of great
size, stiff and terrible, with outstretched arms. On
either side of him are ranged three or four angels,
with the instruments of the Passion. Beneath him, in
the second frieze, stands the angel of justice, with his
scales; and on either side of him is the vision of the
last judgment. The good prepare, with infinite titilla-
tion and complacency, to ascend to the skies; while
the bad are dragged, pushed, hurled, stuffed, crammed,
into pits and caldrons of fire. There is a charming
detail in this section. Beside the angel, on, the right,
where the wicked are the prey of demons, stands a
little female figure, that of a child, who, with hands
meekly folded and head gently raised, waits for the
stern angel to decide upon her fate. In this fate, how-
ever, a dreadful, big devil also takes a keen interest;
he seems on the point of appropriating the tender
creature; he has a face like a goat and an enormous
hooked nose. But the angel gently lays a hand upon
the shoulder of the little girl - the movement is full
of dignity - as if to say, "No; she belongs to the other
side." The frieze below represents the general re-
surrection, with the good and the wicked emerging from
their sepulchres. Nothing can be more quaint and
charming than the difference shown in their way of
responding to the final trump. The good get out of
their tombs with a certain modest gayety, an alacrity
tempered by respect; one of them kneels to pray as
soon as he has disinterred himself. You may know
the wicked, on the other hand, by their extreme shy-
ness; they crawl out slowly and fearfully; they hang
back, and seem to say, "Oh, dear!" These elaborate
sculptures, full of ingenuous intention and of the
reality of early faith, are in a remarkable state of pre-
servation; they bear no superficial signs of restoration,
and appear scarcely to have suffered from the centu-
ries. They are delightfully expressive; the artist had
the advantage of knowing exactly the effect he wished
to produce.

The interior of the cathedral has a great simplicity
and majesty, and, above all, a tremendous height. The
nave is extraordinary in this respect; it dwarfs every-
thing else I know. I should add, however, that I am,
in architecture, always of the opinion of the last
speaker. Any great building seems to me, while I
look at it, the ultimate expression. At any rate, during
the hour that I sat gazing along the high vista of
Bourges, the interior of the great vessel corresponded
to my vision of the evening before. There is a tranquil
largeness, a kind of infinitude, about such an edifice:
it soothes and purifies the spirit, it illuminates the
mind. There are two aisles, on either side, in addi-
tion to the nave, - five in all, - and, as I have said,
there are no transepts; an omission which lengthens
the vista, so that from my place near the door the
central jewelled window in the depths of the perpen-
dicular choir seemed a mile or two away. The second,
or outward, of each pair of aisles is too low, and the
first too high; without this inequality the nave would
appear to take an even more prodigious flight. The
double aisles pass all the way round the choir, the
windows of which are inordinately rich in magnificent
old glass. I have seen glass as fine in other churches;
but I think I have never seen so much of it at once.

Beside the cathedral, on the north, is a curious
structure of the fourteenth or fifteenth century, which
looks like an enormous flying buttress, with its sup-
port, sustaining the north tower. It makes a massive
arch, high in the air, and produces a romantic effect
as people pass under it to the open gardens of the
Archeveche, which extend to a considerable distance
in the rear of the church. The structure supporting
the arch has the girth of a largeish house, and con-
tains chambers with whose uses I am unacquainted,
but to which the deep pulsations of the cathedral, the
vibration of its mighty bells, and the roll of its organ-
tones must be transmitted even through the great arm
of stone.

The archiepiscopal palace, not walled in as at Tours,
is visible as a stately habitation of the last century,
now in course of reparation in consequence of a fire.
From this side, and from the gardens of the palace,
the nave of the cathedral is visible in all its great
length and height, with its extraordinary multitude of
supports. The gardens aforesaid, accessible through
tall iron gates, are the promenade - the Tuileries - of
the town, and, very pretty in themselves, are immensely
set off by the overhanging church. It was warm and
sunny; the benches were empty; I sat there a long
time, in that pleasant state of mind which visits the
traveller in foreign towns, when he is not too hurried,
while he wonders where he had better go next. The
straight, unbroken line of the roof of the cathedral
was very noble; but I could see from this point how
much finer the effect would have been if the towers,
which had dropped almost out of sight, might have
been carried still higher. The archiepiscopal gardens
look down at one end over a sort of esplanade or
suburban avenue lying on a lower level, on which they
open, and where several detachments of soldiers
(Bourges is full of soldiers) had just been drawn up.
The civil population was also collecting, and I saw
that something was going to happen. I learned that
a private of the Chasseurs was to be "broken" for
stealing, and every one was eager to behold the cere-
mony. Sundry other detachments arrived on the
ground, besides many of the military who had come
as a matter of taste. One of them described to me
the process of degradation from the ranks, and I felt
for a moment a hideous curiosity to see it, under the
influence of which I lingered a little. But only a
little; the hateful nature of the spectacle hurried me
away, at the same time that others were hurrying for-
ward. As I turned my back upon it I reflected that
human beings are cruel brutes, though I could not
flatter myself that the ferocity of the thing was ex-
clusively French. In another country the concourse
would have been equally great, and the moral of it all
seemed to be that military penalties are as terrible as
military honors are gratifying.

Henry James